Category Archives: dystopian

Dark City

Alex Proyas’ 1998 masterpiece, Dark City, may draw easy comparisons to The Matrix, but it deserves to be evaluated on its own terms. Both films deal with the idea that there is a deeper reality beyond material appearances as well as the possibility that there are malevolent forces actively shaping your perception. Both films also give you a protagonist who cracks the code of the reality with his own powers which threatens the controlled order of the world he inhabits. While The Matrix was ultimately a story of the Chosen One who liberates the huddled remains of humanity, Dark City is a story of a man who discovers that the essence of his humanity that could not be controlled made him stronger than his captors. 

Playing the role of John Murdoch, Rufus Sewell awakens in a bathtub suffering from amnesia. To his dismay, he discovers a woman brutally murdered lying on the floor of his bedroom. Fleeing the scene in a panic after receiving a phone call from a mysterious Doctor Schreber, he barely escapes discovery from a trio of ghoulish looking beings known as The Strangers.  When the clock strikes midnight, the entire city stops and all its inhabitants fall into a state of hypnosis except Murdoch. This state of hypnosis is induced by The Strangers using a psychokinetic power called “tuning” which allows them to reshape the city and the lives of its inhabitants. Pursued simultaneously by Inspector Frank Bumstead under suspicion of multiple murders, Murdoch is able to escape the clutches of The Strangers by tapping into his own ability to tune. Murdoch tries to recover his memories by reaching out to his torch singer wife, Emma. Murdoch’s ability to tune threatens the control The Strangers exert on the citizens of Dark City.  He seeks to return to Shell Beach, the beachside town he believes to be his home, and unravel the mystery of Dark City before The Strangers catch up with him. 

Dark City belongs to a venerable tradition of SF films which explores the essence of identity, free will versus determinism, the effect of time and memory, and the value of our connection to the past. Given the escalating tensions in neuroscience over the role of biological factors and the nature of consciousness itself, Dark City’s emphasis on the latter theme places it a notch above The Matrix. Through tuning, The Strangers possess the ability to shape time and space, but they imprint people with stolen memories in order to discover what makes humans tick. The Strangers’ mentality can be viewed as a classic representation of collectivist materialism. With Doctor Schreber’s coerced assistance, they distill human experience into chemical combinations. Despite their apparent superiority, The Strangers cling doggedly to the belief that by continuously reshaping the physical, social, and even biochemical conditions, they can mold humanity to fit their desired ends. 

The Strangers’ manipulations of reality also serve as a metaphor for the myriad ways in which globalists, social scientists, and technocrats have intervened in human affairs in the present world. Ultimately, the film is an affirmation of the existence of a sovereign individual consciousness and the ability to exercise free will, but it shows you how difficult it is to develop an awareness of Self. Not only does Murdoch struggle to recover his connection to his own past, he must work equally hard to rip away the veil of deception that has been carefully constructed all around him.

Dr. Schreber: I call them the Strangers. They abducted us and brought us here. This city, everyone in it… is their experiment. They mix and match our memories as they see fit, trying to divine what makes us unique. One day, a man might be an inspector. The next, someone entirely different. When they want to study a murderer, for instance, they simply imprint one of their citizens with a new personality. Arrange a family for him, friends, an entire history… even a lost wallet. Then they observe the results. Will a man, given the history of a killer, continue in that vein? Or are we, in fact, more than the sum of our memories?

The Strangers are one of the most chilling representations of an alien dictatorship I’ve seen on film. They share a collective consciousness, but they have no individuality. It is a society of abject servitude to the hive mind. They possess advanced scientific knowledge, but they’re so imprisoned by scientific thinking, they’re completely insensitive to the ways they’re destroying the lives of their subjects. Morality and ethics are absent from their existence. 

In contrast to the messianic nature of Neo and his quest in The Matrix, Murdoch’s heroism is purely the result of his desire to attain meaning and discover the truth of reality. By asserting his individuality and claiming ownership of his own thoughts, it had a ripple effect in the other characters. He instinctively knows that the love he shared with his wife and his connection to Shell Beach were the only things that gave his life meaning and purpose. 

Stylistically, Dark City is a visual tour de force. The film effortlessly updates Metropolis‘ German expressionism with a lush 90’s gothic film noir chic. The overall color palette is suffused with black and other dark tones, but it is not devoid of rich, vivid colors. Visual, stylistic, and thematic references to its forebears abound. Vertigo, Blade Runner, City of Lost Children, Total Recall, and The Crow can all be detected within Dark City’s DNA. 

Dark City is a film which borrows very liberally from other films, but stands alone on its own terms. We continue debate the acquisition of truth amidst a sea of self-interested media elites, the extent to which we’re influenced by our past positively or negatively, the consequences of the endless parade of would-be social scientists peddling postmodern abstraction as policy, what role neuroscience plays in shaping happiness, and what quantum mechanics suggests about human consciousness. Dark City’s themes speak to each of these issues, and its relevance has grown in proportion. Not only does it stand very tall in the SF cinematic canon, but in the annals of all film. 

Harrison Bergeron


If you were to compile a list of works of speculative fiction whose predictions of the future were truly prescient, it would have to include Kurt Vonnegut’s short story masterpiece, Harrison BergeronI am hard pressed to think of any work which so perfectly captures the pathological mentality of the modern day social justice warrior so perfectly and traces out the ramifications of this mentality if it were made into public policy. Sadly, it’s a process which seems well underway.  
Vonnegut manages to build his dystopian world in one elegant paragraph: 

THE YEAR WAS 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren’t only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General.

With this single paragraph, he places us in a nightmare future where the crusade for equality of outcomes has been pursued to its fullest conclusion. In this not-too-distant future, the US Constitution contains over 200 amendments, people have lost the distinction between positive and negative rights, and perverted its original intent beyond all recognition. The ideas of equality before the law, individual rights and equality of opportunity preserved by a Constitutionally limited State have been completely supplanted by an all-consuming obsession with equal results which can only be attained by destroying uniqueness, individualism and humanity itself. Equality is, of course, enforced by a government bureaucrat, United States Handicapper General, Diana Moon Glampers. Anyone who possesses a quality, attribute or skill that might set him or her apart from everyone else must be handicapped in order to preserve equality of outcomes. The intelligent receive a mental implant which short circuits their ability to think. The attractive are forced to hide their beauty behind masks. The physically able are forced to carry sacks of lead balls padlocked to their bodies. Those with beautiful voices are given speech impediments. And so on. 

The action centers around George and Hazel Bergeron as they watch their son, Harrison, commit the highest act of sedition possible after escaping prison at age fourteen.  Harrison sheds his handicaps and dazzles the world by dancing a ballet on live television before the world. 

One need only to look at any of the social justice jihads being carried out on campuses and in the media to discover that Vonnegut was on to something.  The decades-long feminist outrage against “patriarchal beauty standards” has culminated in the so-called “body positivity” movement which not only destroys the one objective standard present in modeling, but seemingly seeks to reprogram manhood to be attracted to overweight women. The politics of grievance have reached an apex with the never-ending quest to name and shame anyone with “privilege”. Genetic and biological traits now supersede individual rights or merit and are sufficient grounds for legislative redress or special administrative dispensation by today’s social justice jihadists. Perhaps the most pernicious of all the social justice crusades is the pursuit of gender neutrality by those who insist that gender segregation in sports somehow reinforces “harmful” gender stereotypes.  And let’s not forget the deathless claim of a wage gap between men and women which is shamelessly flogged by the political and media establishment despite being debunked several times over. 

Meanwhile, different versions of the United States Handicapper General get created in college campuses and different levels of federal and local government throughout the country. 

What other outcome is possible from this mad pursuit of “equality” if not the anesthetized, institutionalized mediocrity and servitude portrayed in Harrison Bergeron?  As Paul Gottfried and many others have argued, this therapeutic agenda being administered by the democratic priesthood and their lackeys seeks nothing more than to debilitate the population and pave the path to socialist serfdom.  The only equality one can reasonably expect to uphold as an ideal is equality of opportunity. Once you seek equality of results, you destroy the foundation of liberty upon which any possibility for real achievement rests. Speculative fiction of this nature is meant to serve as a warning against the realities of the present. The signs of the nightmare world Vonnegut portrayed are everywhere. Here’s to everyone discovering their own inner Harrison. 

Escape from New York

Escape from New York is a longtime personal favorite and, in my opinion, one of the greatest movies ever. I’m both amazed and gratified by how durable the editorial remains.

For example: 

  1. The police state is indistinguishable from the military.
  2. The police kill with impunity.
  3. The president is a narcissistic figurehead who is relying on a pre-recorded speech on which world peace presumably depends.
  4. The hero is ex-military and now a convicted felon and is the person best suited to infiltrate a prison and mete out the brutality necessary to fulfill the rescue.
  5. The cops have all the best weapons. Everyone assumes automatically that Snake’s possession of firearms means that he’s working for the government.
  6. Snake is carrying out the rescue mission not voluntarily, but because his life is being threatened.  
  7. The hierarchy of violent goons in the prison is indistinguishable from the hierarchy of violent goons guarding the prison. 

And perhaps most importantly, when Snake asks the president how he feels about all the individuals who gave their lives to rescue his, he mutters some half-hearted bullshit about how the “nation appreciates their sacrifice”.

Absolutely essential.

The Dispossessed

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Ursula Le Guin’s 1974 novel is an admirable work. I really wanted to like it. It mines some rich veins of philosophical thought which include individualism versus collectivism, gender equality, the difference between intellectual property and ideas as well as the moral and ethical dilemmas of a speculative anarchist society.  Unfortunately, the novel is ultimately derailed by some fallacious notions and stale, toxic ideas couched in a pretense of edgy progressivism. Sadly, despite Le Guin’s recognition of the scarcity, insularity, and conformity bred by the allegedly revolutionary values she espouses, she doubles down and limps to the conclusion waving the flag of communist ideals in a cloud of unearned triumphalism.

The Dispossessed tells the story of a physicist named Shevek from the anarchist world of Anarres. Shevek develops a groundbreaking theory which has the potential to unite humanity throughout the universe. Though the Anarrestri profess revolutionary values, they are unreceptive to his work. He sets out to the sister world of Urras, the civilization from which the Anarrestri fled, in hopes of bridging the divide between the two societies.

Le Guin makes a courageous attempt at tackling the questions of morality and ethics in the absence of state or religious institutions, but she ultimately succumbs to some really dumb and deeply clichéd antipathy towards market economics. This includes an equally rote denigration of property rights and, by extension, their inextricable link to human freedom. She is apparently on record crediting the blatherings of post-Marxist anarcho-collectivist wankers, Peter Kropotkin and Murray Bookchin, as the philosophical underpinnings of this book. The anarchist society of Anarres is essentially her conception of anarcho-syndicalism.  In other words, it is a society in which there is no private property and no system of prices, competition or currency. Everything is “shared” and used for the “common good”. All economic activity is centrally coordinated by bureaucratic “syndics” and the division of labor is determined by computers. Subsequently, her philosophical commentary bears some unfortunate remnants of Marx, Rousseau and even the poisonous proto-fascist drivel of Georges Sorel. Le Guin’s Anarres is probably best described as a fantastical vision of a world envisioned by feminists, social justice warriors, utopian eco-socialists and anarcho-communists.

To her credit, she addresses the limitations of the collectivist worldview in this novel. This puts her work in philosophical proximity to another notable female writer who tackled very similar themes but arrived at very different conclusions.  Contrary to her professed disdain for Ayn Rand, the themes of this novel are very similar to those contained in The Fountainhead . The two books share more than a few similarities. Each book presents a brilliant male protagonist who seeks to contribute his unique talent to society and each is called upon to adhere to principle in the face of demands from authority or perceived authority. Le Guin appears to take direct aim at Randian ideas of “egoism” and “altruism” at various points in the book.  Though when she does, she ultimately misrepresents both.

Le Guin is widely lauded for tackling gender and sexual politics in her work, but I personally found this aspect of the novel the most grating. All of the editorial around gender carried the sanctimonious stink of contemporary feminism.  Her perverse obsession with equality of outcomes can be traced to an obvious refusal to accept biological differences and individual choices within the paradigm of market economics. True to standard progressive form, she also heaps piles of scorn on those who hold religious beliefs. She holds people of faith in contempt for promulgating a sexist and patriarchal belief in the inherent superiority of men over women. I absolutely concede that most religious faiths affirm the traditional role of male breadwinner and female caregiver, but this line of argument feels tiresome.  If she were referring specifically to the manner in which Islamic societies rigidly enforce a subordinate role for women, it might have more bite. I’m doubtful that was her intent.  It’s particularly dubious hearing this petty nonsense from an author in the Western world who presently enjoys numerous freedoms that are hallmarks of the market economy and liberal society.  Le Guin can be an atheist without fear of violent reprisal. She can compete in the marketplace with men. She can and does claim property rights and has achieved fame and notoriety for the merit of her creative work within the context of a free market.

She wastes no time carving out the contours of her main character and the central ideas of the book. The opening passages describe the wall which cordons off the spaceport of Anarres from the rest of the planet. Right away, Le Guin is telling us that this is a story of walls; walls that stand between societies, genders, and ideologies.

As a character, Shevek is kind of dull. Just as modern writers pander to feminists by writing female characters which are divorced from any conventional femininity, Shevek is the result of Le Guin doing the same thing in reverse. Shevek is arguably Le Guin’s beta analogue to Rand’s alpha Roark. He’s sensitive, vegan, and lives a monk-like life of the mind. As Anarrestri custom dictates, he holds womyn in reverence.  Since her editorial point of view is so rife with dumb and confused ideas, it’s difficult to view him as a heroic archetype of any set of virtuous attributes.

The first chapter is devoted to Shevek’s arrival on Urras.  Shevek struggles to understand the customs and culture of the Urrastri. He simply cannot fathom a world that holds religious beliefs, has state institutions and operates under a market economy. Having constructed a framework for a dramatic clash of ideas, the reader is guided through Shevek’s quest as events alternate between Anarres and Urras.

After this exposition, Le Guin takes us back to Anarres and Shevek’s childhood where the cornerstones of his development were built and the values he acquired from his culture are fleshed out.  Here and in every other subsequent chapter, Le Guin’s muddy logic and dubious editorial comes into sharper focus.

Groan inducing commentary abounds in The Dispossessed, but Le Guin’s disdain for property rights is highest on the list. True to the authoritarian and quasi-religious nature of all collectivist political thought, Shevek’s indoctrination to Odonian values begins at childhood. As most children are wont to do, young Shevek is naturally inclined to view possessions as his property. He is hastily scolded for entertaining this notion by his caretaker. Like Rousseau, Le Guin regards property rights as infantile and the source of human sin. That’s so very progressive and original, Ursula. Throughout the remainder of the book the words “profiteer” and “propertarian” are used as pejoratives. Her disdain for capitalistic property ownership is expressed very clearly through Shevek during his tenure on Urras.

Le Guin considers the ownership of property all by itself as an expression of power. It’s an idea that’s tired and nonsensical in equal measures. She attributes Shevek’s sense of unease on Urras to his perception that a society which affirms property rights is one of “mutual aggression”. This stands in contrast to the feeling of “mutual cooperation” that is the guiding principle of the self-abnegating hippies on Anarres.  It’s more than a little ironic that Le Guin venerates this alleged utopia devoid of private property and denigrates the statist aggression of Urras. In real life, she’s more than happy to advocate for state aggression to enforce copyright law.

This moral confusion and sophistry extends further with respect to acts of actual aggression. Le Guin gets the fundamentals of the argument for anarchism right, but at the same time, she fails to present a coherent Odonian theory of morality with respect to the initiation of violence. This also happens to be the one area where, even if inadvertently, she veers a little too closely to the Sorellian belief in revolutionary violence. In a conversation with an Urrastri woman named Vea, he explains that Odonians are striving for actual morality by abolishing institutional power. That way, Odonians are free to choose morality instead of having it forced upon them by their alleged betters.  So far, so good. However, when Shevek is beaten up arbitrarily as a teenager, he accepts it as a “gift”.  This suggests a lack of appreciation of the inviolability of negative rights and perhaps illuminates her apparent inability to distinguish the state monopoly on the application of force versus private and voluntary exchange.  At the same time, she engages in some typical moralistic handwringing over the usage of defensive force to protect property.  Since she’s already established the ownership of property as an expression of power and a moral wrong, then anyone who uses force to defend against theft or violent expropriation is possessing “power no one should have”.  Make up your goddamn mind, Ursula.

The Odonian credo of self-sacrifice is equally moronic and cringeworthy. It also tips the scale towards a Sorellian concept of “myth”.  For Odonians, the experience of “shared pain” is the principle that binds Anarrestri to one another and to which they must consistently subordinate themselves. It bears more than a passing resemblance to a religious article of faith or any of the collectivist fantasies promulgated by politicians. 

The one idea which truly torpedoes her book is the centrally planned nature of the Anarrestri economy.  She concedes a bureaucratization of Odonian life, but her failure to recognize the inherently preposterous nature of the idea cannot be overlooked. For a SF novel, The Dispossessed is remarkably short of speculative science or any fantastical leaps of imagination. Aside from Shevek’s theory, the DivLab computer is actually one of the wildest speculations in the whole book. Le Guin spends no time discussing it or how Odonians developed such a thing in the first place. Odonians live a life of self-imposed poverty and austerity, and yet, a really sophisticated computer determines how labor resources will be allocated. There’s no regard for the individual, purposeful human action which drives skill specialization and gives rise to supply and demand. Not only is it wildly preposterous that Odonians could develop such a sophisticated piece of technology, the remainder of society is utterly devoid of any other comparably sophisticated technology.  Nor is there any other labor saving machinery. Her description of Shevek’s feelings of “brotherhood, adventurousness, and hope” while waiting to receive instructions during the Anarres famine sounds like dumb, nationalistic propaganda. For all of the realism she brings to every other aspect of the book, Le Guin apparently spent no time examining why central planning was a failure. I can’t help but fault her for her intellectual blindness on this front.

Her actual grasp of physics and science is equally questionable. For all of Le Guin’s emphasis on the Odonian passion for scientific knowledge, she manages to smuggle in some dubious notions which sound like applications of scientific theory derived from feminist epistemology. Apparently, Shevek arrives at his big breakthrough because he was able to extend beyond pure scientific theory and include the realms of “philosophy and ethics”. Good science is philosophy, and is the product of sound ethics. For a woman so apparently keen on equal gender representation in STEM fields, she starts to sound like Luce Irigaray here. As a cheerleader for women in STEM, Le Guin is doing a great job. As someone who earns a living telling stories built from scientific speculation, this is kind of laughable.

Le Guin also attempts to counter Randian ideas, but her conception of both “egoism” and “altruism” are both straw men.  By her reasoning, “egoism” can either be Shevek’s desire to assert his ideas in the face of ostracism or it can be overtly public displays of sexual affection.  As a young child, Shevek is accused of “egoism” when he attempts to formulate his own ideas separate from the tightly controlled confines of the Anarres public school system.  To use contemporary parlance, Shevek would have been accused of using microaggressions.  Here, she suggests an upside to “egoism” which more or less maps to Rand’s conception. However, she ends up diluting her editorial when describing Shevek’s revulsion at the “egoism” of an Urrastri couple getting hot and heavy in full view of a group of people.  Apparently, immodest displays of sexual attraction are on par with individual displays of independent thought.  Got it, Ursula.

Her notions of altruism are equally daft and run afoul of Rand’s actual position. Shevek and his friends conduct their own Stanford Prison Experiment on one another just to feel what’s it’s like to deny freedom to another and to experience an absence of freedom.  When Shevek expresses concern for their captive friend, he is chided by his compatriot not to get “altruistic”.  Le Guin is clearly trying to highlight the monstrosity of imprisonment, but she completely mischaracterizes Rand’s view of altruism. Rand consistently argued that altruism was a toxic and debilitating worldview because it ultimately fueled a pointless and narcissistic sense of self-abnegation. Most importantly, she abhorred the ceaseless desire to petition an authority to adjudicate the parameters of the alleged altruism.  To be fair, Le Guin’s usage of the term alternates between pejorative and complimentary, and it’s difficult to tell where she ultimately stands.

The major intersection between Rand and Le Guin occurs in Shevek’s development of the Theory of Simultanaiety; the theory which would allow the development of an intergalactic internet. Not only does Le Guin use this to distinguish the importance of asserting individualism, but she uses it to make a worthwhile point about sharing ideas even if she misrepresents the nature of intellectual property in the process.  Just like Howard Roark in The Fountainhead, Shevek risked ostracism and reproach from fellow Odonians in order to develop the idea. According to Le Guin, intellectual property belongs to the State, and subsequently, is just another form of dominion over others. This is partially true, but fundamentally false. Intellectual property is a monopoly right conferred by the State to the holder of the property claim. It confers state power to the holder of the right.  Ursula Le Guin would know. She’s a huge advocate for it.

Though her commentary on gender is rife with progressive clichés around “equality”, it is noteworthy that she appears to be a forerunner of the whole neutral/non-binary view of gender that’s all the rage nowadays. Unfortunately, her views hew very closely to the pretentious postmodern ramblings of Judith Butler.  In the Odonian tongue, “brother” and “sister” share the same noun. Odonians have sex with males and females as adolescents and there is no stigma associated with this activity.  She also anticipated the current trend of subverting gender stereotypes by casting females in roles traditionally perceived as male. The entire book seems like the blueprint for the now omnipresent push for women in STEM. Like most contemporary feminists, Le Guin seems to dismiss equality of opportunity and focuses obsessively on equality of outcomes. She seems to relate to inequity of outcome as evidence of retrograde attitudes all by themselves. She also disregards the gender imbalance in science as a product of natural choices or differences in skill levels. While on Urras, Shevek expresses total surprise at the complete absence of women in science. Naturally, she portrays the scientists of Urras as sexist oafs who are somehow keeping women subservient and subordinate.

She goes so far out of her way to create female heroes and invert every gendered convention, that it feels overly calculated. At times, it suggests a subtle contempt for motherhood. In this respect, Le Guin’s thought seems to anticipate the broader trend in feminism which all too often reduces to a singleminded focus on terminating pregnancy. This Orwellian attempt to erase any semblance of women as caregivers in art is now commonplace. In other words, it comes across like propaganda. Odo, the matriarch of the revolution was female and her teachings formed the foundation of Odonian society. What a coincidence. The foundations of a revolutionary anarchist matriarchy were written by a woman. How totally meta, Ursula. Shevek’s mother leaves his father when he was a baby to devote herself to her engineering career because her Duty to the People® took priority over her own child. The physicist who inspired Shevek’s work was a woman, too. We don’t know anything about her except that she’s got a uterus and she had theories which weren’t taken seriously even in the matriarchal utopia of Anarres. To Ursula Le Guin, women just don’t get taken seriously in this capitalist patriarchy and motherhood and biology are no big deal. 

Le Guin betrays a smug, repressive elitism towards women who flaunt their sexuality by wearing makeup or provocative clothing. It’s an attitude that’s sadly endemic to a significant segment of the contemporary feminist “movement”. Vea is portrayed as an attractive woman, and yet, for Odonians and Le Guin she’s a “body propertarian” whose humanity is absent simply because she’s provocatively dressed and made up.  Who’s the one objectifying and dehumanizing, Ursula? You or that evil patriarchy?

And what feminist novel would be complete without a scene of sexual assault?  Apparently, we just can’t talk about gender politics without some rape editorial. The assault scene between Vea and Shevek stands in sharp contrast to the scene between Howard Roark and Dominique Francon portrayed in The Fountainhead. Here, Le Guin betrays a pretty obviously low opinion of men’s capacity for self-control.  Once Shevek gets a little bit to drink and is in the presence of a woman who’s made up and wearing sexy clothes, he is seemingly unable to stop himself from committing assault. His monk-like existence amongst the joyless, preachy pro-feminism communists of Anarres just couldn’t contain those toxic male urges. 

The Dispossessed is book that’s moderately engaging and asks the right philosophical questions, but mostly arrives at the wrong conclusions. In science fiction, I expect some flights of imagination, and in this respect, Le Guin borders on a sort of pedantic realism that feels slightly inappropriate for the genre. It’s almost as though she’s disconnected from the things that make science fiction fun and engaging. It’s burdened by a certain overly earnest preachiness and stoicism.  As a work of philosophy, it gets a few things right, but misses the mark more often than not. Kropotkin, Bookchin and Le Guin were completely correct about state power. Unfortunately, she and her intellectual forebears were incorrect about property rights, market economics and the proper application of violent force.  I would be inclined to disregard all of the gender politics, but the collection of ideas presented are so prevalent nowadays, it demands a vigorous rebuttal. The stranglehold of Marxist and post-Marxist ideals remains as strong as ever. The eco-communist ideas of Murray Bookchin are even getting a second wind in the alleged “anarchist” feminist utopia of Rojava. Naturally, it was dutifully reported by the progressives at the New York Times. I hope Le Guin is happy that a real life version of Anarres is being attempted right before our eyes.

The argument for anarchism is the definitive argument of our times and Ursula Le Guin is to be commended for making an earnest contribution to this debate through science fiction. It’s too bad she’s on the wrong side of the argument.

Anthem

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After going 43 years not having read Ayn Rand, I am increasingly convinced that the degree to which you are able to enjoy her as a writer depends a lot on your overall receptivity to what she is laying down philosophically.

While I can appreciate that folks find the single minded and self-righteous implacability of her worldview repellant and impossibly self-centered, I have concluded that these criticisms are both right and wrong.

Thematically, this book is exactly what I expected.  It portrays a future society in which the will of the individual has been completely subjugated by the will of the collective.  The protagonist eventually escapes from society and reclaims his individuality and as a result, makes some revelatory pronouncements which certainly validate the view that Ayn Rand is a one dimensional harpy dispensing scorn and condemnation toward all collectivist impulses and sentiments.  Love and respect is to be earned and not freely given.  The pursuit of achievement is its own end and whether or not it is of any benefit to mankind is not the point.  “We” can only be invoked voluntarily and if invoked in the context of political power or social activism is corrupt and evil.  And so on.

No surprises.

On this front, the critics and haters are correct.  As Whittaker Chambers so eloquently put it in his 1957 National Review piece, it’s the tone that dominates and the words are shouting us down.  It’s clear that Ayn Rand wanted this book to carry the weight of a Biblical parable (the protagonist claims the name Prometheus and surprise! his invention is a light bulb).  There is simply no questioning the validity and veracity of her revelations!

With a worldview so rigid, the laws of physics take hold and the caustic, inverse reaction is inevitable.

How could anyone really hold such a narrow view of the world and regard that as unassailable Truth?!

There are many possible lenses through which to view people and the world around us which are seemingly unaddressed by the Randian view. There are some people for whom voluntary charity and giving is a genuine expression of themselves.  Some derive great satisfaction from knowing that their contributions are making a material difference to others.  Some are edified and filled with joy by freely expressing love to others regardless of whether it is earned.   Some are willing to place trust and faith in others to find their own self direction instead of relating out of the default assumption they are looters.   The key of course being whether or not these actions are taken voluntarily versus being carried out by a state bureaucrat.

The punch line, however, is that Ayn Rand didn’t care about the haters.  She wrote what she wrote and if you don’t like it, move on.

Where the critics and haters are wrong is simply a failure to fully appreciate the importance of individualism and self-interest.  The key to happiness and self-fulfillment lies within each individual.  You are your own best guide for navigating the challenges which life presents.  Even if there have been worthy achievements made by the State, the placement of too much faith in the power of the State to rectify social ills is misguided and potentially toxic.  I agree wholeheartedly that the freedom of the individual has lit the flame of progress for humanity throughout the ages and there are passages in this book which testify to the spirit of individualism and burn with a righteous fire.

Anthem is both a worthwhile read and a completely worthwhile addition to the dystopian SF canon.

And hey, just remember this.  Any book which inspired Rush’s 2112 can’t be all bad.

Divergent

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Candy coated dystopian SF for the youth set. Not completely shitty, but it certainly squanders a juicy premise.

Society is run by five factions (Abnegation the selfless, Amity the peaceful, Candor the honest, Dauntless the brave, and Erudite the intelligent) because the state has determined that this particular social order keeps the peace. Naturally, the do-gooders in Abnegation run the government and they are virtuous and pure and all of the poor souls in this faction work for the government.  They live in homes which are completely uniform, they conserve energy, eat nutritious but meager meals, and most importantly, indoctrinate the idea that you must place the concern of others above yourself and that this sense of altruism must be funneled into government service. They’re presented as one dimensional puritans yet likeable enough to make you somewhat sympathetic. The heroine of the story, Beatrice, is the daughter of the leaders of Abnegation, and as you can imagine, she dreams of escaping the suffocating piety of her faction. Mysteriously, they are apparently as virtuous as they are portrayed and society runs like a charm under their benevolent hand, but whatever. We’ll go with it.

Everyone in society submits their children to a ceremony in which they choose a faction to which they’ll remain faithful for LIFE!  Not only that, everyone submits to a chemically induced test which offers a “suggestion” about which faction they should select.  So far, this is an awful lot of obedience to government power and yet, life still seems pretty serene and pleasant. Food is apparently plentiful. There is advanced technology, all of the factions are productive and happy, homelessness is present but manageable, and get this, the law enforcement faction, Dauntless, is pure and virtuous and NEVER resort to militaristic crackdowns!  They are super sexy have rad tats to boot.  Again, this is a lot of overall pleasantness considering that what’s being presented is a totalitarian society, but whatever. We’ll go with it.

Beatrice takes the test, and surprise! She’s Divergent! Which means she cannot be controlled by the government! Of course, she’s warned not to reveal this information because she’ll be marked for death.

She chooses the Dauntless faction, turns herself into a badass, and gets all hot and heavy with her hunky, tattooed squad leader.

As it turns out, the Erudite faction is planning a coup d’état by drugging the Dauntless goons and ordering them to grease the hippies in Abnegation en masse.

And this is where it gets a little groan inducing.  The inevitable struggle between Beatrice and the despotic Erudite bitch who engineered the coup ensues. Naturally, the goons are centrally controlled by a computer program and as long as our Divergent heroine dismantles the program, the world is saved, order is preserved, and the spotless virtue and benevolence of Dauntless remains untainted. So in other words, our individualistic dissident Divergent Beatrice asserts her individuality by SAVING THE GOVERNMENT and restoring power to the do-gooders in Abnegation.  Because apparently, a totalitarian society with an enforced social order isn’t so bad if it’s run by do-gooders!

The only thing that redeems this bit of inanity is that she and the be-tatted hunky dude bail from society altogether. I realize we live in a society where the lines between corporate power and state power are intertwined. But it really burns my ass when people do dystopian SF and ascribe all benevolence and/or power to government and completely disregard the distinction between economic life and state power.

It feels half-assed and timid.  George Orwell was unequivocal about the source of malevolence in 1984, folks. It’s worth remembering this.

But enough carping.  It’s entertaining enough.  A pleasant Diversion.

The Forever War

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A first rate war SF and dystopian tale.

This book’s reputation as a classic is well deserved.  It succeeds at being an engrossing and very convincing tale of a futuristic war while simultaneously etching out the contours of the grotesque and horrifying political world that would send soldiers to the farthest flung corners of the universe to fight a seemingly unconquerable enemy.

It is a well documented fact that Mr. Haldeman intended this book as a commentary on Vietnam, but I believe that he achieved something far greater. By placing events in a far future, his extrapolations succeed in leveling a critique of the absurdity and inhumanity of the state war machine that seem chillingly plausible.

Over half the Earth’s domestic population are unemployed and all taxpayer funds have been diverted to fund the war.  The best and brightest citizens have been conscripted and all of the technological innovation is being deployed in service of the conflict. Heterosexuality has been bred out of the population as way of maintaining control of the herd. Private citizens have to hire bodyguards because crime is so rampant.  Gun control laws prohibit the acquisition of lasers except for law enforcement. The government has completely overtaken the management of the economy.  And so on.

Haldeman’s physics are also quite convincing. He is attentive to details but never at the expense of momentum. The training maneuvers which take place on Charon (!!!) at the beginning of the novel are harrowing because they are remarkably detailed but rendered with the voice of unforced, casual detachment one hears from a soldier enduring any earthbound military shithole.

Haldeman is also wisely attentive to economics as well as physics.  SF has given us so many fantastic visions of scientific advancement, but often at the exclusion of the economic portion of the equation. This aspect lends this book yet another layer of resonance.

As someone who has been fortunate enough not to have seen the horror of war, this book more than succeeds as a reminder that the warmomgers of the state deserve our fullest contempt and our most fervent opposition.

Fahrenheit 451

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Fahrenheit 451 holds a vaunted position in the dystopian SF canon for good reason. It still burns with vitality and its warnings of overweening, censorious government remain as relevant as ever.

The book tells the story of Guy Montag, a fireman whose job is to burn books and the people who own them. His wife is an empty shell of a person who inoculates herself from thinking or feeling by immersing in mind numbing entertainment and an endless supply of narcotics. He meets a young teenager in his neighborhood who displays behavior to which he is simply unaccustomed.   She exhibits curiosity about him and the world around her which is completely contrary to what is taught in schools. It prompts him to question the institution for which he works, the history he had been spoon fed, and the foundations of his marriage.

Mr. Bradbury had more foresight than some might care to admit. Between his predictions of public schools as breeding grounds for violence, the perversion of fire protection into an instrument of government censorship, a narcoticized, media obsessed culture and a government simultaneously obsessed with suppressing dissent and the vainglorious pursuit of “equality”, this bleak vision of the future remains devastatingly prescient.

Fahrenheit 451 is a shining testament to the power of ideas contained in the written word. By emphasizing the importance of active engagement with humanity and nature, knowing the difference between thinking versus the accumulation of information and the dangers of a government that thinks it knows what’s best for society, this book more than earns its essential place in the SF canon.

Snowpiercer

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Man, is this film overrated.

It’s an interesting premise and certainly offers a unique take on post-apocalyptic dystopia, but despite its visual invention and black humor, the ideas at its core feel trite.

The premise is pretty straightforward. Environmental devastation has driven mankind to seek a technological solution for climate change which backfires and instead turns the planet into a presumably uninhabitable tundra. Prior to the wintry techno Armageddon, a forward thinking industrialist constructs a global railway system and the titular train which carries the remnants of humanity in its various cars and endlessly circumnavigates the frozen waste.

Echoing the themes and visual metaphors of Metropolis and Animal Farm and numerous other dystopian fables, the downtrodden, impoverished proles are banished to the dim, grimy, squalid rear cars while the wealthy enjoy the comforts of the front cars. Order is of course enforced at gunpoint by a legion of goons who are lead by a caricature of a despot played by Tilda Swinton.  Coming across like a visual mashup of Ayn Rand and Margaret Thatcher in quasi military regalia, she makes pompous pronouncements about maintaining the social order of the train and how everyone must maintain “Their Proper Place”.

After one of the children is taken away by the authorities for some unknown and nefarious purpose, the proles decide to initiate a revolution. Lead by the twin stereotypes of the Indomitable Rebel Leader (Chris Evans) and Wizened Sage (John Hurt), the band of revolutionaries begin a violent takeover of the train leading to the inevitable showdown between the Indomitable Rebel and the Evil Puppet Master at the front of the train, Wilford.

This stuff is generally good grist for the drama mill when telling a dystopian SF story, but this is where the film goes off the rails (pun intended).

Here, the film commits three crimes of peddling hackneyed tropes.  The first is the Inverse Road to Serfdom Fallacy, the second is the cult of deference to a Great Leader, and the third, while ultimately derived from the first two, is the idiotic notion of a fated social order which is either enforced by totalitarian rule or disrupted by a Liberating Leader.
The most egregious crime is of course the Inverse Road to Serfdom Fallacy. The notion that an industrialist who achieves success in the free market left to his own devices has totalitarian designs and will subject an unwitting public to his technocratic Darwinian power games and will not hesitate to use violence to both keep the plebes in line and maximize efficiency.  At the end of the film, Wilford offers Curtis the opportunity to be the new Great Leader because after all, the rubes need to be kept in line. One particularly cartoonish scene involves a school teacher indoctrinating the youth with cultish songs of praise toward Wilford which are undoubtedly meant to resemble those sung at gunpoint in North Korea.

The film essentially presents the acquisition of power, wealth and resources as a zero sum game and insists on perpetuating the dumb, reductive and counterproductive dichotomy of 99 percenters versus one percenters. There are haves and have nots and the haves will resort to violence and repression in order to preserve the social order and the only recourse for have nots is violent revolution.

And of course, all collective action is driven by the dictates of the Leaders from both sides.  The rebellious proles only act when commanded to do so as do the armed goons who work for Wilford.  There is no individual thought, action or initiative whatsoever. Everything hinges on The Leaders.

Despite its generally hamfisted approach to the themes, there are some surprising nuances.  The film seems to be suggesting that privatized marine ecosystems will result in a sustainable food supply.  And for those who believe in gun control, this film may disabuse the notion that gun ownership should be the sole province of agents of the state.  There is a pretty blatant suggestion of entomophagy as a viable food alternative as well. Not exactly something you’re likely to see in your average Hollywood film for sure.

The visuals are cool and the combat scenes are insanely brutal.

Proceed at your own risk.

Interstellar

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Recommended, but with caveats.

Let’s get the science stuff out of the way first. I’m not going to quibble about the science in this film at all. Not a bit.

Even if this film represents a new era of scientific realism in blockbuster filmmaking, I do not enter ANY SF film with an expectation of total fidelity to the laws of physics.  I expect a good story and I’m cool with suspension of disbelief within the boundaries of the world that is presented.  If the science and the storytelling are both good, then I’m satisfied. If the science is weak, but it tells a good story and the liberties taken make sense within the story, I’m equally satisfied.

If you want hard science, then read a science book or watch Cosmos. If you’re someone who simply can’t enjoy a SF film which doesn’t adhere fastidiously to the laws of physics, you should probably skip this film. Seriously. Don’t bother.

That being said, this is the cinematic equivalent of literary Hard SF. All of the fanfare is warranted because there is plenty of real (and speculative) science! The film touches on relativity and the accompanying time dilation effect, wormholes, black holes, and the possibility of higher dimensions of spacetime. All of the heady shit that makes cosmology, astrophysics, and quantum mechanics so mind blowing makes it into this movie and is dealt with very convincingly.

Among other things, the characters travel through a wormhole, land on a planet near with extreme gravitational tides, and journey through a black hole which passes into higher dimensions of spacetime. All of it is way cool, beautifully rendered and gives you plenty of mind candy to ponder with or without bong hits. I haven’t a single issue with any of these aspects of the film.

My beefs lie elsewhere.

I have two essential gripes with the film. It is presenting a tortured confluence of collectivism and individualism and its economics require a far greater leap of imagination than any of its wildest scientific speculations.

First and foremost, it is trying to have it both ways with respect to its view of humanity’s redemption of itself.  It is presenting a near future dystopia where environmental devastation has decimated the food supply. This shortage precipitates a genuine need to seek alternatives, but the film sends a conflicting message about how we achieve salvation.

The government has imposed mandates through the public schools which require that the majority of the population enter into agriculture in order to meet the global demand for food. History books are being rewritten to exclude space flight because humanity simply cannot afford such extravagance.

So far, so good.  Collectivism run amok.

The hero of the film, Matthew McConaughey, is a former pilot and engineer and teaches his kids to be independent thinkers. Acquire self knowledge, appreciate the scientific method and be self-sufficient individuals. He’s the kind of father who insists that they know how to change a car tire, but has a healthy enough irreverence for government property that he would remotely down a drone and dismantle it for parts.

A cast of independent minded protagonists are being established as be a countervailing force against encroaching mindless authoritarianism.

Again, so far, so good.

Where the film starts to go off the rails is through some mysterious observations made by Cooper’s daughter. They discover NASA hard at work engineering humanity’s interstellar salvation.

The government has imposed dystopian mandates around employment, the food supply and education, yet they are still funneling billions of dollars into NASA programs which are completely secret. Also, this band of enlightened government scientists aren’t militarized, experience no budget overruns or shortfalls, are rational and pleasant people, and are quietly working on spacecraft which can traverse interstellar distances completely beyond the view of the press and the public.

AND the lead scientist played by Michael Caine serves as a mentor to Murphy so that she may fulfill her intellectual potential and solve the mysteries of spacetime.

So our intrepid, individualistic, free thinking heroes are able to fulfill their purposes and buck the system by…wait for it…working for the government!

Alrighty then!

Furthermore, for all of Nolan’s scientific detail, the film’s economics are about on par with Star Trek.  Wildly speculative to put it mildly. The film presents not just one, but multiple manned flights through a wormhole which is located near Saturn! This is not a cheap endeavor nor is it one with an economic payoff on the other side.

There are, of course, the requisite collectivist sentiments which surround it. “Then get out there and save them. We must reach far beyond our own lifespans. We must think not as individuals but as a species. We must confront the reality of interstellar travel,” says Dr. Brand.

This is a classical collectivist sentiment. The only difference being that it’s being applied as a rationale for going into space in order to achieve humanity’s presumed salvation. The film ultimately reconciles this and its wilder scientific speculations by positing that love is the unifying force which transcends the barriers of knowledge and science.  Sounds a little like faith, people!

Don’t get me wrong. None of this destroys the film nor does it diminish my enthusiasm for the idea of interstellar travel. Christopher Nolan works very hard at credible world building and the film never fails to engage.

The visual, musical and thematic allusions to 2001: A Space Odyssey are myriad and the comparison is fully warranted.  The two films are companions through and through and Interstellar is arguably an update of the ideas which 2001 introduced.

Spoiler alert.  The film’s big visual payoff is neither the passage through the wormhole or the black hole. It’s a visual representation of a tesseract, and it’s pretty bitchen.

Do it.