[Part I is here.]

You all know I’m a big fan of Natalie Portman. I had a crush on Senator Amidala when I was 12 years old, and so I’ve seen a bunch of her movies. Someday maybe I’ll do a definitive ranking of them, although that would require watching Song to Song, which I have no mind to do, so maybe not. But I’m sure I have a better-than-average knowledge of her filmography.

Why am I rambling on about this? What does this have to do with fin de siècle?

Well, I saw a film of Portman’s called Vox Lux in 2018, which grossed over $400 million dollars and earned eight Oscar nominations.

Oh, wait; no, it didn’t. That would be A Star is Born, starring Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper. Both are films about an up-and-coming singer trying to make it in the music industry. Vox Lux wasn’t 1/100th as popular as A Star is Born, mostly because A Star is Born is a love story and Vox Lux is a weird and unsettling meditation on the depravity of modern culture. You can guess which one I’d gravitate towards, even if La Portman were not involved.

I won’t go on at length about Vox Lux here. If you want that, you can read my review here. Otherwise, just look at this picture from the film:

Now, I know it’s tough to see. But this ominous hooded figure is wearing a golden mask. Do hooded, masked figures make you think of anything from our last discussion? A drop of King in Yellow, a pinch of Red Death, a little Tower Headsman to taste, and before you know it you’ve got a piping hot Symbol of Death. As it should be, because this hooded character in Vox Lux is a terrorist. (See, I told you it was weird…)

Of course, one costume using a fairly common trope to communicate “scary” doesn’t prove anything. I would never dream of saying Vox Lux is the modern-day King in Yellow on such a flimsy basis.

Don’t worry, Vox Lux‘s connections to our old friends from the 1890s run deep. My review contains the full accounting if you want it, although you’ll have to tolerate a bit of redundancy with things I’ve said in this series. Otherwise, we can make do with a couple of images.

But wait. Might this all be a red herring? After all, didn’t I just say Vox Lux wasn’t nearly as popular as A Star is Born?  So who cares what it says about our culture? It’s not widely-known enough to even matter.

Here’s my counter-argument: the art that we associate with the fin de siècle movement wasn’t necessarily the popular entertainment of the day. The Grand Duke flopped. The King in Yellow was far from a hit. These kinds of artistic movements are always a little bit off, a bit outside of “normal” people’s tastes. But the fact that it exists at all is telling.

The Victorian era is famous for its rigid morality. This was a time of modest dress, traditional families, and a conservative culture. “Repressed” is a word you’ll often see thrown around, although of course the Victorians would never have described themselves as such.

But it’s clear that this cultural tradition was eroding by the late 1800s. Much of the shocking art and literature of the decadent period would simply have been unthinkable a few decades earlier.

Curiously, we can perceive a very similar period of changing cultural mores in more recent history. Just as Jude the Obscure would have so not been published in 1860, Vox Lux could so not have been made in 1960. Actually, almost none of our modern day movies could have been made in the era between 1930 and 1960, and not just for technical reasons. Or at least, not made in America.

So, is there just some immutable cycle where, at the end of every century, people start to feel a sense of oppressive ennui, of creeping apathy, and retreat into decadent and strange arts that would seem perverse to their more straitlaced ancestors? Maybe, although no such feeling appears to have existed in, for instance, the 1790s in America.

To me, what can most easily explain these related aesthetics is that these are phases in the lifecycle of a global hegemon. When a superpower arises, it initially is buoyed by a feeling of optimism and enthusiasm for creating new institutions. Over time, however, these institutions grow stale, corrupt, and oppressive, causing people to lose faith in them. 

This gradual loss of faith is a hallmark of decadence. In such periods of decline, alienation is the norm, and the fabric of society decays, leading to social upheaval, rebellion and a general feeling of collapse.

This brings me to the phrase which I used for the title of this post, which is a quote from Warren Spector describing the creation of the 2000 video game Deus Ex. I love “millennial weirdness,” partly because, although it actually refers to the epoch, it can also sound like a description of my generation, but mostly because it’s the perfect modern American rendering of fin de siècle.

Here’s one reason I feel justified in saying Vox Lux and Deus Ex share an aesthetic. Check out their respective covers:

Seriously, if you knew nothing else about these two things, wouldn’t you guess they were somehow related? Not only do they share this weird day-for-night color palette, but they also both have a Latin phrase for the title. To me, it seems clear that these two images have the same mood.

In terms of behind-the-scenes stuff, Vox Lux and Deus Ex are not related at all. They’re not the same medium, nor the same genre, nor do they, as far as I know, have any cast or crew in common. As for audience, well, it’s entirely possible that I may be the only person who has both played Deus Ex and watched Vox Lux. What does this suggest, if not some some strange memetic propagation of this mood across the culture?

But these are just single images. We can’t judge a film by its poster, or a game by its cover. It could just be a weird coincidence. After all, we know a poster’s vibe need not match the thing its advertising. What else do we know about Deus Ex and its atmosphere of “millennial weirdness”?

I’ve never formally reviewed Deus Ex for one reason: because Ross Scott did it better than I ever could. If you want a masterclass in reviewing, Scott is your man. Gamers reading this should absolutely check out his videos on Deus Ex.

But, for the purpose of my larger argument, let me try to fill you in on the details of Deus Ex, knowing all the while that I stand on the shoulders of a giant.

Deus Ex is set in a dystopian future of, as Wikipedia describes it: “a world ravaged by inequality and a deadly plague.” It begins in New York City. The game was made in 2000, but because of texture issues, they had to eliminate the World Trade Center from the background. They justified it in-game by saying it had been destroyed in a terrorist attack.

Are you thinking back to our earlier discussion of Repairer of Reputations and getting a little deja vu yet? Why do these nightmarish dystopias always feel so familiar?

In the world of Deus Ex, every conspiracy you can imagine is true. The Illuminati, Area 51, global plutocrats ruling over the rest of us, and super-intelligent Artificial Intelligences. All these things exist, and are gradually uncovered by the player’s character, J.C. Denton.

It’s a world of shadowy cabals, distrust and justified paranoia. (There are also robot soldiers and mechs. It’s still a video game.) I think it’s fair to say that Deus Ex‘s imagined future is one in which faith in institutions is not rewarded. Conspiracy theories are typically the product of an age in which trust in the established order is very low.

Beyond that, there is the omnipresent sense of decay and the feeling that the rotten husk of the ancien regime is giving way to something else. In Deus Ex, the player gets a choice in what that is; whether it’s continued manipulation by a sinister oligarchy, rule by a machine intelligence known as Helios, or simply burning it all down, and returning to a simpler time, when life was hard but people were free.

Deus Ex is a deeply philosophical game. There are tons of dialogues about personal freedom vs. order, the morality of power, and so on. It’s simply too massive for me to discuss each example at length. Watch the intro cinematic and see what you think. Don’t worry if it seems a little incoherent; it should. No one is supposed to know what’s going on in Deus Ex when they start.

By this point, I hope I’ve convinced you that “there’s something happening here” even if “what it is ain’t exactly clear.” I’ve used the two examples of Vox Lux and Deus Ex–two separate works, in separate media, nearly two decades apart, to try to demonstrate that this aesthetic exists in modern culture.

But we’re not finished yet. After all, I still need to find some indication that this decadent zeitgeist is related to the 1890s and the original fin de siècle. Ideally, something stronger than “I dunno, they just, like, seem the same to me, man.” (Although true, this is a weak argument, and one to which skeptical readers would be entitled to reply in kind.)

Throughout Deus Ex, there are lots of documents, books, newspapers, magazines, tablets etc. that the player can pick up and read. This is mostly optional; it’s just a way to add to the atmosphere and do a little extra world-building.

Among these texts are scattered excerpts from The Man Who Was Thursday, a novel by G.K. Chesterton. Here’s one of the excerpts quoted in Deus Ex:

…First of all, what is it really all about? What is it you object to? You want to abolish Government?”

“To abolish God!” said Gregory, opening the eyes of a fanatic. “We do not only want to upset a few despotisms and police regulations; that sort of anarchism does exist, but it is a mere branch of the Nonconformists. We dig deeper and we blow you higher. We wish to deny all those arbitrary distinctions of vice and virtue, honour and treachery, upon which mere rebels base themselves. The silly sentimentalists of the French Revolution talked of the Rights of Man! We hate Rights as we hate Wrongs. We have abolished Right and Wrong.”

“And Right and Left,” said Syme with a simple eagerness, “I hope you will abolish them too. They are much more troublesome to me…”

It’s true that The Man Who Was Thursday was published in 1908, and therefore is not, in the literal sense, fin de siècle. But most historians would say that this period really extended until the start of World War I in 1914, so we’ll go ahead and grandfather it in. If so, we now have discovered a missing link between our two aesthetics. The anarchistic philosophy of mass collapse that permeated fin de siècle Europe and the cynical alienation and paranoia that existed at the end of the 20th century and the early 21st, though separated by a massive gulf in technology, fit neatly with one another, the way South America and Africa, now a hemisphere apart, were once clearly connected.

I hope I’ve persuaded you to see things my way, dear reader. If not, I humbly apologize. You see, I’m so confident that my thesis is correct that if I’ve failed to convince you, it can only be because I’ve argued my case very poorly, which is the worst thing someone seeking to persuade can do.   It’s one thing to have an incorrect premise and not be clever enough to make people buy into it, but to have a correct premise and still botch the selling of it is just inexcusable.

But, assuming that what I’ve asserted here is correct, and that there does indeed exist some inherited tradition of a strange, alienated, cynical and decadent aesthetic that flourished both at the beginning and the end of the 20th century, the question remains: what should we do with this information?

To understand the future, we must understand the past. I’ve used this strange, unwieldy phrase “techno-decadentism” in reference to an artistic movement; one that is, I will argue, an heir to the tradition of “just plain old” decadentism. But what was the original decadentism? Where did it come from? And can we learn anything from it?

Come with me, once again, to the 1890s. I talked in the previous post about fin de siècle. But now we have to experience it.

It’s 1897 and there’s a revival of The Yeomen of the Guard on at the Savoy. Check out that poster!

A black figure against a yellow background–how striking. Then again, we’ve seen this before–in 1896, The Grand Duke was playing at the Savoy, with a very similar poster–indeed, by the same artist:

Of course, Grand Duke depicts a broken-down critter, not an imposing figure. And yet, both, in their own way, symbolize the same thing. Do I even have to tell you what they symbolize? Decadence means decay, and the final stage of decay is of course death. A lone figure, symbolizing death… it evokes Poe’s Masque of the Red Death.

Ah, now, that’s a bit of a cheat. I have no business dragging a poem from 1842 into a conversation about the 1890s. Or do I? After all, Poe’s influence on the decadent movement was great, and if he was born a little too early, and a lot too west, we can’t blame him for it. Artistic movements usually take a while to bloom; like a plant. “A flower, planted on Poe’s grave,” as I once heard someone describe it.

You might think these posters are similar simply because they are by the same artist, Dudley Hardy. But this is more than just a single artist’s distinctive touch. It’s part of something bigger–hence, we call it an aesthetic. See again the example of Théophile Steinlen’s 1896 poster for Le Chat Noir:

Or, maybe the single most famous piece of artwork to come out of this epoch: The Scream, by Edvard Munch (1893). Again, an ominous background surrounding a surreal and nightmarish figure: 

Everything about Fin de siècle is conveying a mood of pessimism, of decline and decay. In England, a venerable old monarch was growing grey. Victoria’s days were numbered, as her subjects must have known, but would not say. Maybe that’s why Sir James Frazer’s anthropological study of death and rebirth myths The Golden Bough (1890) made such a hit.

You ask: am I just cherry-picking here? Finding all the seemingly-related works from a certain period and leaving out ones that don’t fit? I’m sure there must have been good old-fashioned romantic art being produced in the 1890s. (Actually, fin de siecle art was centered in Europe–other parts of the world were in an altogether different phases of civilization at this point.)

Anyway, yes: I might indeed be cherry-picking facts. It’s easy to find themes that fit a narrative and discard those that don’t, since we know what happened next, and therefore are easily predisposed to see patterns that might not even exist.

To know if anything is really going on here in the 1890s, we have to try to look at the world through the eyes of its inhabitants. This is where my amateurish Gilbert and Sullivan studies come in handy: in their heyday of the 1870s and 1880s, Gilbert and Sullivan made their names with comic operas known for their light humor, bubbly dialogue, and romance. They are optimistic and fun–even when they talk about darker subjects like execution.

And then we come to the 1890s, and things change. Their next-to-last work, Utopia, Limited doesn’t just mock the foibles of particular public figures, but is a broad satire on the British Empire itself. And their last, the aforementioned Grand Duke is cynical mockery of almost everything–love, death and the medium of theatrical entertainment itself. It’s funny (actually, in my opinion one of their funniest) but it doesn’t have heart like their most famous operas do.

As Max Keith Sutton put it in his article, The Significance of The Grand Duke:

The opera is a decadent work, as Professor Jones has suggested–perhaps a deliberate parody of literary trends near the time of Wilde’s Salome, when perverse attitudes (necrophilia, for one) and violence were being seriously depicted on the European stage. Certainly The Grand Duke is decadent in the literal sense of representing physical and mental, moral and political decay.

He explicitly makes the comparison with fertility myths:

The decrepit Rudolph has the role of the Old King whose death signifies the end of the year, the defeat of Winter in the ceremonial contest with Spring. “Broken-down critter” that he is, he makes a perfect monarch for a comic wasteland… Rudolph undergoes legal death in the mock duel–”the moment of ritual sacrifice”–and the plump, sausage-devouring comedian takes over as duke for a day and Lord of Misrule.

I can’t prove an entire shift in the zeitgeist based on the work of a curmudgeonly old librettist and his alienated and sickly composer. But, something is going on here, wouldn’t you say? Things that would have never been tolerated at the height of Victorian prudishness are now becoming mainstream. 

There is a sense of a cycle, a cycle that is coming to an end. The cynicism, boredom, and restless neuroticism that characterize a declining empire who knows its best days are behind it. 

I’ve always liked The Grand Duke. It was the least popular Gilbert and Sullivan opera, but its atmosphere is strangely compelling to me. But I never bothered to see it in its proper context until I began to study the 1890s for another reason: Robert W. Chambers’ collection of stories, The King in Yellow, and in particular the first story, The Repairer of Reputations.”

I’ve talked about it before. A lot. Hell, I’ve actually posted the story with my annotations on this blog. So a lot of this will be old hat to longtime readers. But we just can’t understand this strange world of fin de siècle without understanding The King in Yellow. Sorry if this is repetitious for some of you.

Despite my enthusiasm for it, I’ve never actually reviewed The King in Yellow, however, because something in it defies reviewing. The key part of the book is the fictional play described within it, also called The King in Yellow, which connects the first four stories. Chambers only quotes bits and pieces of the play, and, notably, only from Act I. Act II–the really juicy bit that drives people mad–is left a mystery to the reader. Personally, I’ve always imagined it as something to do with an all-consuming plague, like the aforementioned Masque of the Red Death. And I think it’s not too much of a stretch to say there is an echo of Poe’s story in these mysterious lines quoted from the play:

CAMILLA: You, sir, should unmask.
STRANGER: Indeed?
CASSILDA: Indeed it’s time. We all have laid aside disguise but you.
STRANGER: I wear no mask.
CAMILLA: (Terrified, aside to Cassilda.) No mask? No mask!

But that’s just me. The beauty of Chambers’ technique is that he knows that what the reader imagines will be scarier than anything he himself could create.

If The King in Yellow has a flaw, it’s that its tales are arranged in the wrong order, proceeding from most bizarre to most mundane. M.R. James would have known that the way to truly mess with the reader is to lull them at first, before springing the trap. But, probably some editor told Chambers that one of the ten rules of writing was to lead with the exciting bit, or some such conventional wisdom. Times change; but people who don’t appreciate art remain the same, and also remain in charge of deciding what shall be published.

Recall that, as I said above, it is hard to evaluate an era honestly, because we know what happened. It’s interesting to get a view of the people of the era, who don’t know where it’s all going. It’s even more interesting to read their predictions for where they think it will go.  Chambers provides us with just such a prediction, albeit wrapped in a curious package.

The Repairer of Reputations begins:

Toward the end of the year 1920 the Government of the United States had practically completed the programme, adopted during the last months of President W———‘s administration. The country was apparently tranquil. Everybody knows how the Tariff and Labour questions were settled. The war with Germany, incident on that country’s ————-, had left no visible scars upon the republic…

Okay, so I’m playing censor here and cutting stuff out. Did your mind automatically fill in those blanks? The natural thing is to assume the first is filled with “Wilson” and the second with “invasion of France.” 

If you do that, you have a totally nondescript history of someone talking about actual 1920. Admittedly, it’s a decidedly vague description, but still, it works.

But of course, this story was written in 1895. And it’s President Winthrop and Germany seized the Samoan islands. Which actually happened a few years after Chambers wrote the book, although it was not the cause of the major war.

I am not a believer in prophecies or seers or other such superstitious hokum. “Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side…” etc. But seriously, this gives me pause. 

What’s even weirder is that, as the story develops, we learn that Hildred Castaigne, the narrator telling us all this, is, um, not exactly reliable. In fact, he’s so unreliable that it might not even be set in 1920 at all, and yet his doubly-imaginary 1920 seems plausible to us, as readers who, unlike Chambers, know what happened in real 1920.

Does this creep you out just a little? There’s more: the future that our narrator reports (envisions?) includes such things as government lethal chambers, where people who find existence unendurable may find relief. Was that prescient? I dunno, let’s check with the American Eugenics Society, founded in 1922. 

So what the heck? Was Robert W. Chambers was some sort of prophet or time-traveler gifted with uncanny insight into the future? And if he was, we must ask: why did he use his powers only to write one cool story, and not for something more epic?

A more plausible explanation, and much more agreeable to my skeptical, materialist mind, is that there is such a thing a zeitgeist where all trends are pointing towards something happening.  For example, could you find some literary work from the early 2000s that involved a highly-contagious pandemic? Why yes, you could! But really, in retrospect, isn’t that one of those things that any intelligent person who was paying attention could have foreseen? 

And this is why fin de siècle literature is so interesting. If it was all just a coincidence that around 1890 everybody started to feel cynical, bored, and generally like the old order is about to go up in some sort of apocalyptic catastrophe, and it did, then it’s a mere historical curiosity. 

But if, on the other hand, there is some sort of predictive value in this–if perhaps people feeling this pervasive sense of decay had something to do with the ultimate fate of Europe, either because it was a self-fulfilling prophecy or simply because anyone attuned to the spirit of the age could see where it was going, then this is very interesting indeed.

And it would be especially interesting if we had some reason to believe that it was happening again… but that’s for another time. 😉

This is a cover for a 1980 edition. There are many like it–and many un-like it–but this one is my favorite.

Starship Troopers is a famous book, with a profound influence on modern science fiction. It’s one of the earliest known appearances of powered armor in fiction, elements of its setting can be seen in countless other science-fiction works about humans battling alien insects, and it was the basis for a cult-classic movie franchise.

The book is told in first person by Juan “Johnny” Rico, a soldier in the Mobile Infantry. It begins with Rico and his platoon attacking an enemy planet, then flashes back to when Rico joined the military, over the objections of his father.

Rico details all the details of basic training, as the drill sergeants mold the recruits into a fighting force. Occasionally, he flashes further back to his high school class in “History and Moral Philosophy,” taught by a retired officer, Lt. Colonel Dubois.

Throughout the book, Rico reflects on Dubois’ lectures. And why is that? Well, we’ll talk about that later.

Eventually, Rico graduates and joins the war against the bugs. His mother is killed by a bug attack on Buenos Aires, a devastating attack which mobilizes Terran forces against the bugs, and Rico soon ships out to attack Klendathu as part of the formidable unit “Rasczak’s Roughnecks.”

Ultimately, Rico becomes an officer and, after another daring raid to capture a “brain bug,” becomes an officer and commander of “Rico’s Roughnecks.”

There really isn’t that much sci-fi stuff in the book. Apart from a few episodes of high-tech infantry attacks against the bugs at the beginning and the end, you’d barely notice the book is set in the future. It’s mostly about military basic training. My father was in the army and trained at West Point, and the descriptions don’t seem much different from the stories he’s told me.

So why did Heinlein even bother setting it in the future, if we’re only going to get a few pages of power-armored spacemen fighting overgrown bugs and lots and lots of “history and moral philosophy”?

Heinlein was a fervent anti-communist, and it is widely believed that he chose insects for the antagonists because they represented a collectivist society taken to an extreme. The bugs care nothing for individuals; indeed, they frequently are willing to sacrifice hundreds of “workers” in order to kill just a few humans. The centrally-coordinated, anti-individualist bug society is meant to represent communism in its most extreme form.

Here is where things get strange. Much of the book is dedicated to showing Rico and his comrades being molded into a cohesive fighting unit–a hierarchical structure where soldiers follow orders from their superiors unquestioningly, the chain of command is respected, and if necessary, soldiers sacrifice themselves to defend society.

Doesn’t that sound awfully… I don’t know… collectivist to you? It does to me. But now I’m confused. Rico and his men are the good guys, and the bugs are the bad guys, and both are collectivist. I’m not saying they’re the same, but it’s a difference in degree rather than a difference in kind as far as I can see. What’s going on here, Heinlein? Make up your mind if we’re supposed to be for collectivism or against it!

Well, there’s more to this story. But first, it occurs to me I’d better apologize to new readers coming to this as part of Little Red Reviewer’s Vintage Science Fiction Month. You probably are used to normal, sane people who review a book by talking about the plot, the characters, and saying what they did and didn’t like. (For a long list of VSFM posts, written by competent and focused reviewers unlike yours truly, see here.) I have a tendency to write long, rambling reviews that go off on tangents, and I daresay this particular book only encourages me. If you want the TL;DR version, it’s this: I didn’t especially like the book as a novel–I found it too didactic, with not enough actual plot to liven it up. That said, it is interesting, and worth reading nevertheless.  But to find out why I think it’s interesting, I’m afraid you’ll have to be subjected to more of my idiosyncratic review style…

Check out the Wikipedia page on Starship Troopers. You’ll see in the contents a section called “Allegations of fascism.” You can read the section if you want, although it really tells you nothing beyond what the title conveys–the fact that some people alleged the book was promoting fascism.

That’s a serious allegation! And maybe it’s the answer to our question. After all, 20th-century fascism was another totalitarian ideology that competed with communism. And when I say “competed” I mean “fought bloody wars against.” Between them, these two ideologies are responsible for death and destruction on a mind-numbing scale.

But you’ll notice I specifically mentioned 20th-century fascism, as formulated by Mussolini. But that was more of a darker take on the nationalism of Garibaldi, wedded to some concepts borrowed from 20th century socialism. We must dig deeper still.

The name “fascism” comes from the fasces, a symbol of wooden rods bound together, which shows up in all sorts of surprising places across the globe. The fasces symbolized power in Ancient Rome, and if there’s one tradition Heinlein seems to be modeling his futuristic society on, it’s the values of the Roman Republic.

It’s time to talk about Lt. Col. Dubois, as promised. Here he is replying to a student who has just said that “violence never solves anything”:

“I’m sure the city fathers of Carthage would be glad to know that… Violence, naked force, has settled more issues in history than has any other factor, and the contrary opinion is wishful thinking at its worst. Breeds that forget this basic truth have always paid for it with their lives and their freedoms.”

Wow! Whatever they’re teaching in that Moral Philosophy class, it probably ain’t pacifism, is it? No wonder it got Rico so excited to join up, even over his father’s objections.

Well, that and another reason. Sorry if I buried the lede here, but in the society of Starship Troopers, you only become a full citizen by serving in the military. In other words, you have to complete basic training and fulfill a term of service in order to be able to vote. And why is this? Dubois explains:

“There is an old song which asserts that ‘the best things in life are free’… This was the tragic fallacy which brought on the decadence and collapse of the democracies of the twentieth century; those noble experiments failed because the people had been led to believe that they could simply vote for whatever they wanted… and get it, without toil, without sweat, without tears…

The best things in life are beyond money; their price is agony and sweat and devotion . . . and the price demanded for the most precious of all things in life is life itself — ultimate cost for perfect value.”

The goal of Heinlein’s society is cultivating civic virtue. (Much like the fasces, the words “civic” and “virtue” both come from Latin.)  The idea is that people who have paid a heavy price to wield authority will use it judiciously and wisely. Thus, restricting citizenship only to those willing to fight and die in the defense of society.

Is this fascism, as we understand it today?

Not quite, I don’t think. I don’t believe a society governed by the votes of military veterans is inherently fascist. That said, you can see the potential for it to turn into something a lot like fascism. The Freikorps weren’t all Nazis, by any means, but you can see how easily the former can produce the latter.

Of course, a society in which only military veterans can vote will be much more militaristic than one where everyone can vote. That goes without saying. And militarism, while possibly not the most collectivist society imaginable, is certainly not friendly to ultra-individualism either.

To an ultra-individualist, anything that’s less individualistic than their own ideals looks like some form of creeping collectivism, whether fascist or communist or whatever. Judged by the standards of 2020s America, 1930s America looks pretty collectivist. For example: a huge national service program in which people perform manual labor sounds pretty weird to us, but FDR pulled it off with some good results.

There are some problems–such as alien bug attacks and highly contagious viruses–which require collective action to solve. A certain amount of civic virtue is needed to meet such emergencies, which is why the society Heinlein envisioned is so militaristic.

That is, what we see of it, which admittedly isn’t much. Actually, one of my problems with the book is the lack of description of the wider world outside the Mobile Infantry. Rico’s father does some sort of business, but other than that, details about the economy are vague. Even the government itself is unclear. Veterans vote, but what do they vote on? Do they vote directly for policies, or for representative candidates? Who, in short, is driving this bus?

Starship Troopers isn’t the sort of pulse-pounding action-adventure novel its name suggests. Actually, it’s a philosophical novel about society and government. Given that, it would have been nice to see a bit more of both. But it’s also intended as a tribute to, as Heinlein puts it, “the bloody infantry, the doughboy, the duckfoot, the foot soldier who goes where the enemy is and takes them on in person.”

And certainly, anyone who does a job requiring discipline and sacrifice is deserving of praise. DuBois’ speech above relates to something I’ve been musing about lately: in wealthy societies, where options for entertainment and leisure abound, people easily can forget about the dignity and respect afforded to those who do the hard jobs that keep society running. But it is, and always will be, noble to forgo pleasure to do something good. And the more opportunities for pleasure there are, the nobler forgoing them will be.

In that regard, Starship Troopers certainly offers plenty of food for thought, and it’s easy to see why Heinlein chose to put such an austere message in the form of a science-fiction story, at a time when the United States, as a prosperous superpower, was beginning to focus on the possibility of traveling into space. As President Kennedy said in 1962, three years after the publication of Starship Troopers:

“There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet. Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation may never come again. But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? 

…We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”

“Not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” There’s a political rallying cry for you! Sadly, there is always the danger that “Can’t Someone Else Do It?” will be competing with it…

Anyway, Starship Troopers is definitely a worthwhile book, not only for its status as a hugely influential work of science-fiction, but also as an insight into the mindset of the Cold War.

“Aamrgan?” you say. “What kind of title is that?” Well, it’s an anagram of anagram. Nifty concept, isn’t it? It’s a good brain-teaser that sets the stage for what’s to come.

Aamrgan is a short book, but it contains huge ideas. It was originally going to be a novel, until the author began contemplating the backward time travel paradox, and so instead wrote this short but fascinating work of metaphysical puzzles.

When I was in college I took a class in logic offered by the Philosophy department. I did okay in the class, but I always felt like there was something about it that I just couldn’t wrap my head around. Maybe my mind isn’t great at grasping abstract concepts. I got the same vibe reading this–like I was stretching my mental muscles in a way they weren’t used to moving. 

Don’t be fooled; while the book is 34 pages long, it’ll keep you thinking about it for way longer than it takes to read it. It’s different; it makes you think about things you may have taken for granted in entirely new ways. It’s a good book to start off the year, too; what better way to start a new year than with a new perspective?

I often see indie authors bring up the fact that the audience for their books seems to be composed of other indie authors. I’ve written a bit about this before, but now I feel compelled to do so again.

Also, I will be making some assertions that I don’t have hard numbers to back-up. If anyone does have numbers that either support or contradict, please say so in the comments.

Fewer People Are Reading

There’s little doubt fewer people read for pleasure than in the past. In 1900, for example, your options for in-home entertainment were much more limited. After a century that has seen the rise of radio, television, and of course, the internet, it’s impossible to imagine books not losing some market share.

Media like television and online videos are also inherently easier than reading. Watching is a passive activity. You don’t have to engage the imagination to the same degree as you do when reading a book. 

This also means that now, more than ever, the people who are reading must really like reading. Because if you just kind of like reading as a way to pass the time, there are lots of other things tempting you. The people who are reading books now are people who are serious about it. Which leads to a second point…

More Readers Are Writing

As Mark Paxson pointed out in the foreword to The Marfa Lights, readers, like pretty much every consumer of media, believe at some level they could make something better than at least some of the material they’re getting. But whereas with, say, movies, it takes a lot of money and buy-in from other people before you even get the chance, publishing a book just requires that you have the ability to save a Word file and upload it to the internet. Of course, publishing a good book takes a lot more than that, but the fact is, publishing has never been easier than it is now.

As a result, readers who in past eras might have had no viable path to publishing their work now have the ability to do so, and consequently, more readers are also writers. Or more accurately, published writers.

Is Any of This a Problem?

The simple answer is, “Duh, of course it’s a problem.” Fewer people read, and if you’re trying to sell books, that’s obviously bad news. And I’ll agree that, for a number of reasons, it would be better if more people read. But that isn’t something we can do much about, at least not in the short run.

I think many people still have in mind, at least subconsciously, the model of The Famous Author and Their Readers. I know I did, and this is probably because the most well-known current authors—Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, George R.R. Martin, to name a few—fit into this mold, and by definition, they and others like them are the authors we hear the most about. 

However, these are exceptional cases. Many authors, including some who became quite famous, often did a great deal of their work as part of small groups of writers who shared their writing with each other. H.P. Lovecraft, whose name is now synonymous with a whole sub-genre of horror, was part of one such group, which also included Robert E. Howard (Conan the Barbarian) and Robert Bloch. (Psycho)

More generally, good things seem to happen when you get a small group of talented people working together. One person alone usually can’t create something great; if nothing else, they need the support of their friends and peers. Likewise, large groups of people struggle to do anything at all, which is why big governments and corporations alike are famously inept.

In this regard, indie writers are actually quite well-positioned. The set of people who read is being whittled down to those who really care about it, and we have more ability than ever before to share our work.

Mais il faut cultiver notre jardin

What I’m saying here probably runs contrary to the general feeling among most indie authors. No matter how much we (and I include myself in this) may say, “We write for the sake of writing,” the truth is, we want to be read by people. Hopefully, a lot of them. I don’t think any of us expects to reach Rowling or King-level fame, but it would be nice to have a following of people who, of their own free will, read our work regularly.

At the same time, I think it’s a mistake to wish for that at the expense of appreciating what we have. A community of writers, even a small one, is a recipe for producing great work. And, in my opinion at least, it can be satisfying in ways that having a lot of readers wouldn’t be. I may not be a famous writer, but unlike King or Rowling or Martin, I can count on the fact that all my feedback, whether positive or negative, will be thoughtful and well-considered.  

I realize that by writing all this, I may be coming across as a “Professor Pangloss,” the absurdly optimistic character from Voltaire’s satirical novel Candide. But if by doing that I encourage my readers to continue their writing—as Voltaire was supposedly encouraging his readers by writing Candide—it will be worth it.

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The number one issue that humanity faces today is technological growth. If you look under the surface of most political issues, what drives them is the way technology has given us abilities we did not previously have, or information we could not previously have accessed.

What makes this especially powerful is that technology evolves much faster than human beings do. Technology can go through many generations in the course of one human’s lifetime.

This is important, because in evolutionary biology, new traits usually emerge over the course of generations. (This is why biologists usually study traits in organisms with short generations. You can observe multiple generations of flies over the course of a year.)

But since technology moves faster than humans can evolve new traits, it means that we are always playing from behind. When I was born, cell phones were huge, unwieldy things used by rich people, sales reps, and techies. Now they’re everywhere, and are more powerful than the top-of-the-line supercomputers of three decades ago.

For the last 200 years, technological progress has been increasing at an incredible rate. And humans have often suffered by being slow to adapt. This is illustrated most dramatically by wars: in World War I, the officers had all been trained in tactics derived from the Napoleonic era. This resulted in huge massacres, as cavalry and infantry charges–which would have worked against men with inaccurate single-shot rifles–were torn to pieces by machine guns. Technology had made a huge leap in the century between the battle of Waterloo and the battle of Artois. And that was as nothing compared to the leap it would make in the next thirty years, with the advent of the Atomic Bomb.

The thing is, while it may seem to us like a long time since the days of cavalry charges and flintlock rifles, in terms of human history, that’s a drop in the bucket. Homo sapiens first emerged roughly 200,000 years ago. On that scale, Waterloo might as well be yesterday, and the Roman Empire was just last week.

For the vast majority of our existence, life was pretty much the same: people worked the land and hunted and raised families. Periodically, they organized into larger tribes to make war or trade. If you took a citizen of Athens from, say, 450 BCE and transported him to Renaissance Italy—nearly 2000 years later–he’d still have a pretty good handle on how things worked once he got past the language barrier. Whereas if you transported somebody from 1890s London to the present day—a mere 128 years!—he’d have no idea what was happening.

When you read history, it’s easy to be struck by how human nature seems unchanged over the centuries. We can recognize things in the texts of the earliest historians and philosophers that seem analogous to modern phenomena. While it may seem like this means human nature is eternal, what it really signifies is that it hasn’t been that long, in biological terms, since what we think of as “ancient times”.

It’s commonplace to observe the technology changes, but human nature remains the same. But observing it is one thing; grasping the full implications is another.

For instance, there is a major “culture war” debate in the U.S. over the issue of transgender rights. Those who favor transgender rights view their opponents as closed-minded bigots. Those opposed see the others as radicals bent on destroying the social order. What both sides ignore is the fact that until very recently, transgender people had no medical treatment available to them. For hundreds of thousands of years, transgender people had no option but to live in the body they were born with. And the rest of the population scarcely even knew they existed; and so built whole societies premised on two rigid gender roles. It wasn’t until very recent breakthroughs in medical technology that any other option became viable.

Once you view it in these terms, you realize it isn’t a liberal plot to destabilize society, but simply a group of people able to access treatment that previously did not exist. Likewise, you also realize the reason so many people are responding with fear and suspicion is that history and tradition provide no guidelines for how to deal with the issue. It simply wasn’t possible in the past.

A number of social conflicts, I suspect, are in fact the result of people being optimized for a very different world than the one we actually live in. Ancient prohibitions against homosexuality, sodomy, and other non-reproductive sexual behavior made some sense in the context of their time—in the past, when mortality rates were high, people needed everyone who was physically capable of reproducing to do so, personal feelings notwithstanding. It was about survival of the group, not any one individual.

Nowadays humanity is threatened more by overpopulation than by extinction—but we’re still adapted to the world of thousands of years ago. That’s just one example. I think people in the developed world still have a slightly-irrational fear of famine; simply because we evolved over millennia where food was, in fact, extremely scarce. (This is why philosophies like the so-called “abundance mentality” seem so counter-intuitive. In the past, it would’ve been suicide to assume there were enough resources for everybody.)

Instinct is a powerful thing, and incredibly dangerous when it gets outdated. To borrow an example from Paul Graham: because human beings haven’t had the power of flight until recently, it’s easy for our senses to be fooled in bad visibility.

Of course, this is something where we use technology to make up for our own shortcomings. A human being would have no idea how to fly a plane if not for instruments that correctly show the position of the aircraft. And this leads to another obvious point about technological evolution—it is, in many ways, nothing short of miraculous for humans. It allows us to accomplish things our ancestors could never have imagined. Whatever bad side effects it has, no one could ever rationally argue that we’d be better off getting rid of all of it and returning to primitive life.

The saving grace is that technology has been designed by humans and for humans, and so generally is compatible with the needs of humans. The things that conflict with human needs aren’t usually a direct result of this, but rather side-effects the designers never thought of.

But side-effects, almost by definition, are insidious. Any obvious, seriously harmful side-effect gets fixed early on. The ones that don’t usually fall into one or more of the following categories:

  • Not obvious
  • Don’t seem harmful at first
  • Can’t be fixed without destroying the benefit

The designers of automobiles probably never thought the exhaust would cause pollution; even if they had, they probably wouldn’t have realized that cars would be widely used enough for it to matter. Marie and Pierre Curie had no idea the new element they had discovered was dangerous. It seemed like just a useful illuminative substance. And pretty much every communications technology in history, from the printing press on, has the potential to spread pernicious lies and propaganda just as much as news and useful information. But no one can figure out a way to remove the bad information without also getting rid of the good—the only option is censorship, which can pose a danger in its own right.

I’ll say it again for emphasis: technology is evolving faster than humans. As a result, our instincts will often lie to us when it comes to dealing with technology. It’s the same way modern junk food is engineered to please our taste buds while poisoning our bodies—it’s designed to set off all the right sensors that tell us “get more of this”.

The rise of nationalism throughout the world in the last decade has gone hand-in-hand with the rise of social media. It’s not a coincidence. Social media plays to an old instinct that takes human society back to its most basic state: the tribe, and the desire to win approval from that tribe. But in the past, when we were in tribes, we didn’t know what the rival tribes or nation-states were doing—they were in far-off lands and rarely encountered each other. But now, we always know what they are doing—they are just a click away. And because they are a different tribe, our instincts tell us to fear them, as our ancestors feared invaders from distant places.

What can we do about this? We can’t get rid of technology; nor would we want to. And I don’t think it’s a good idea to make it into a political question. Politicians want easy, non-nuanced issues, where they can cast themselves as leaders of a huge, virtuous majority against a tiny, vaguely-defined band of evildoers. That would be a terrible thing to happen on this issue. As we’ve already seen in the social issues I’ve mentioned earlier, politicians tend to cast these things as moral questions rather than technological change ones.

We’re going to have to deal with this one on our own. But how? After all, technology brings huge benefits. How can we keep getting those while minimizing the side effects? We don’t want to completely ignore our instincts—not all of them are outdated, after all—but we can’t always trust them, either.

The best advice I can give is to always be on the lookout for what side-effects technology produces in your own life. Always ask yourself what it’s causing you to do differently, and why. Then you’ll start to look for the same in the wider world. We know human nature doesn’t change that much; so when you see or read about a large number of people behaving in an unusual way, or a new cultural phenomenon, there’s a decent chance that it’s in response to some new technology.

It’s easy to look at the dangers of technology and decide you want to opt out, throw it all away, and return to the simple life. This is probably healthy in small doses but it’s impractical on a large scale or for an entire lifetime. What I’m advising is cultivating an attitude of extreme adaptability, where you are so flexible that you can both use new technology and see the potential problems with it coming before they hit you. Listen to your instincts, but know when you need to disregard them. Remember, your instincts are optimized to give you the best chance at survival in a world of agrarian societies and/or tribes of hunter-gatherers. And they are damn good at it; but their mileage may vary in a world of computers, nanomachines, and space travel.

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There is no lack of explanations for what happened in 2016.  All the major groups have their version of it.  The centrist-Democrat political establishment one goes something like this:

“The Democrats failed to understand the economic anxiety voters in the Midwestern states felt as a result of globalization.  Donald Trump tapped in to these fears and won by turning out the midwestern white vote.”

That seems pretty reasonable.  But the more liberal, socialist-leaning elements of the Democratic party have a slightly different explanation:

“The people in the midwest were turned off by the flawed ‘establishment’ candidate Hillary Clinton, who they viewed as untrustworthy and unlikely to bring economic reforms that they wanted.  This depressed voter turnout, allowing Trump to capitalize on latent racism.”

This is pretty much the same thing, only it puts a little more blame on the Democrats and offers an implied prescription for the direction of the Party.

The Republicans, of course, have their own view as well.  It can be summarized as follows:

“The working men and women rose up to vote out the politically correct big government agenda of the Democrats, and supported a successful businessman who will put their interests first and bring back jobs and opportunity, and who is not afraid to say what he thinks.”

All of these explanations are fairly similar.  In an increasingly rare event in politics, all sides are in agreement on the basic facts; that Trump won, that Clinton lost, and that the Midwestern states were the reason why. They are all describing the same event, and so arrive at a set of explanations that satisfactorily summarize the same results in a way that suits their respective worldviews.

Each explanation seems plausible. Which one to use depends on the target audience, but any one of them could work in a typical piece of political analysis.

But chances are, you don’t want typical political analysis.  If you did, you would be reading CNN or Fox News or Huffington Post or Breitbart or some other site.  You’re here because you want more than a summary. You want to understand 2016 in a larger historical context, and to know about the economic, cultural and philosophical forces underpinning the shocking electoral result.

In other words, you want to know what really happened.

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