Category Archives: apocalypse

Books about the end of the world.

Review 208: A Canticle for Liebowitz

LL 208 - A Canticle for LiebowitzA Canticle for Liebowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.

This has probably been noted by many better thinkers than I, but the way I see it is this: history takes a long time to happen.

I know, I know. Mind: blown.

We are lucky in this day and age that we have so much information available to us about history. Go to any of your better museums and you’ll see artifacts of a bygone age, books and clothes and various objects carefully displayed under glass. Through the meticulous work of historians and scholars throughout the ages, we have created an unbroken chain of knowledge through the centuries that is so thorough and so strong that we feel like the days of Shakespeare, of Charlemagne, of Pericles all happened just the other day.

But what if that chain were broken? What if something so big, so terrible were to happen that we had to rebuild history from scratch, using oral tradition and whatever pathetic scraps of memorabilia we could find? Whom could we trust to keep it and put it all together, and then what should we do with it in the end?

Believe it or not, there is a Patron Saint of Technology, and we honor him by getting ridiculously drunk. Go figure.

Believe it or not, there is a Patron Saint of Technology, and we honor him by getting ridiculously drunk. Go figure.

These are the questions that humanity is forced to confront after the Flame Deluge – a nuclear inferno that claimed the great nations of the world near the end of the twentieth century. All would have been lost if not for the work of Isaac Liebowitz, an engineer-turned-monk who dedicated his life and the lives of his brothers to the preservation of knowledge. Over the centuries, his part of the Albertan order would become the caretakers of a bygone age, guardians of history itself, and would play a key role in the future of humanity, for good or for ill.

A Canticle for Liebowitz is a novel in three parts, spanning over a thousand years of future history. It begins in the 26th century, where the inhabitants of what was once the United States are bound into roving tribes and insular city-states. There, the young monk Francis makes a startling discovery from the life of his patron, the soon-to-be-sainted Liebowitz, a discovery which changes his life and the lives of everyone in his order. Through chance, or perhaps divine intervention, Francis finds an underground bunker, a shelter from the Fallout demons of old. He rummages around the cluttered remains of whomever had sealed themselves inside, and happens upon a strongbox, within which are handwritten pieces of paper, including a blueprint for an electrical circuit designed by Leibowitz himself. Suddenly, Francis’ vocation was clear. Or at least clearer than it had been before.

Then the story jumps forward to the 29th century, an age of discovery and renaissance. The learned both inside and outside the Church are beginning to rediscover science, and apply it to rebuilding some of the technology that was thought to be lost so long ago. At the same time, local leaders are vying for power, and trying to ensnare the monks of St. Liebowitz in their plots. The world is changing, progressing, and not everyone is comfortable with this change.

36th Century - so far in the future that these guys would be the subjects of Renfaires.

36th Century – so far in the future that these guys would be the subjects of Renfaires.

The third part of the story propels us into the 36th century, an age undreamed-of by even those who lived before the world was cleansed by fire. Humanity is traveling between the stars and giving life to their machines, making full use of knowledge both new and old. Unfortunately, mankind may succumb to the same pride, the same flaws that nearly destroyed it a thousand years before. On the eve of self-annihilation, a desperate group of pilgrims is sent out to the stars to try and keep some spark of humanity alive in the cosmos, despite humanity’s nearly unstoppable urge to destroy itself. And at the center of all of this is the Order of Leibowitz, holding on to old works and memorabilia, waiting for either the right hands or the wrong ones.

The book sounds depressing in its nature, but it isn’t. Yes, mankind makes the same stupid mistakes over and over again, not remembering the horror that befell them the last time. But despite that, there are still good people and there is still hope. You turn the last page knowing that the world, and humanity, will go on in one form or another. Even with our propensity for self-destruction, we are equally capable of brilliance and discovery.

In a larger sense, too, this book is one long journey into philosophy, bringing up some questions that are truly fundamental to who we are as a species. For example, the book addresses the topic of euthanasia in one section, with the Abbot of the order violently opposed to the Mercy Camps that the government is building. Is it better to make the sick and injured live in their sickness, or should we give them a way out? Is suicide – assisted or otherwise – ever permissible? The characters that debate this topic each have a clear and rational reason for thinking the way they do, and yet they come to no agreement. The characters, for the short time we get to see them, are fascinating. You feel sorry for them, hopeful for them, and afraid for them, because Miller has written them as human beings. We don’t have Interchangeable Scientist A and Interchangeable Scientist B arguing opposite points. We instead have scholars and religious, each desperately trying to protect his point of view.

Is the world truly ready for a better way to drink soda? The potential is unthinkable!

Is the world truly ready for a better way to drink soda? The potential is unthinkable!

Or what about the nature of technology itself? The monks are charged with being the memory of mankind, yet when people start trying to recover the lost sciences, the abbot feels uncomfortable with the whole idea. After all, their predecessors in civilization followed the path of science, and look where it got them. Might it not be better to just let things stay as they are? Hard, yes, and certainly not a perfect world, but when you don’t even have electricity, blowing up the world is hard to do.

What I also found interesting was how Miller placed the Catholic Church at the center of this story. In the world after the Deluge, the Church is the only organization left, and it fills the power vacuum nicely. Through its system of priesthoods and orders, it remains the last island of civilization in a world that’s turned to chaos. I’m not a big fan of the Catholic Church for many reasons, but he really made it into an establishment that I could appreciate. It represented continuity and caution, as well as taking up the guardianship of human history. For all its faults, if the Church could keep humanity from failing utterly, I would be grateful for it.

It’s intellectual science fiction at its best, really, exploring the kind of big ideas that science fiction is meant to do. Miller has sung a song – a canticle – not just for the fictional Liebowitz, but for humanity as a whole, and asks his readers to sing along with him.

——————-
“If you try to save wisdom until the world is wise, Father, the world will never have it.”
– Thon Taddeo, A Canticle for Liebowitz

Walter M. Miller, Jr. on Wikipedia
A Canticle for Liebowitz on Wikipedia
A Canticle for Liebowitz at Amazon.com

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Filed under apocalypse, history, religion, science fiction, technology, war

Review 179: John Dies at the End

John Dies at the End by David Wong

There are really only so many things you can do with horror these days. I think we’ve all been somewhat desensitized by the ever-increasing variety and imaginativeness that has come with the horror genre in recent years, and so you know that sooner or later you’re going to find yourself yawning theatrically at someone being forced to devour their own brains with a spoon made from their still-living child’s hollowed-out sternum and say, “Seen it.”

There are always new avenues for horror…

As that moment approaches, the aspiring horror writer will need to start worrying less about the mechanics of the whole thing – the inventiveness of their devices and the goriness of characters’ ends – and more about how their story will stand out among an ever-broadening field. David Wong has chosen to use two interesting techniques in the writing of his book: comedy and wondrous incomprehensibility.

Wong (not his real name, for reasons he makes clear in the book) is a writer over at Cracked.com, a humor site on which I have spent many a good commute. Wong’s work there tends towards video games and social issues, generating columns such as, “9 Types of Job That Will Destroy Your Soul,” “5 Ways to Tell You’re Getting Too Old for Video Games,” and one of my favorites, “How Karate Kid Ruined the Modern World.” He and Cracked are part of one of my favorite archipelagoes of the internet, where pop culture is analyzed with more seriousness than it deserves, and where many of the ideas that we take for granted are put under the microscope. Yes, it tends to reduce issues and oversimplify things from time to time, but they’re fun reading.

His years of writing humor have allowed him to create a very distinctive voice for the narrator of this book, also named David Wong, who is telling his story to a reporter – the story of how David and his friend John came to be able to peel the lid off the universe and peer into its dark, black, pestilent heart. Through the use of a bizarre drug that they call Soy Sauce, they are able to see through time, to communicate over great distances through unconventional means, and to observe phenomena that no one else can see.

This is not nearly as much fun as it sounds. It turns out that there is a whole lot of stuff out there that we can’t see, and most of it is truly terrifying. Forget simple things like ghosts and other spookiness. We’re talking seven-legged spiders with bad blonde wigs, tiny corkscrew insects that scream as they infect their victims, red-eyed shadowmen that remove you from having ever existed, and, watching all of this from his own adjacent universe, Korrock. And the less you know about him, the better.

The dark god Khi’kho-Ma’an is a harsh and unforgiving master.

Where you and I, having seen what cannot be unseen, might just do the rational thing and kill ourselves, David and John go along for the ride, trying to figure out where the monsters are coming from and doing their best not to become them. This universe, you see, is a fundamentally bad place, in more ways than we can really understand. But it’s only bad from our very restricted point of view, as if that really made any difference. David and John are afforded a bit of a better perspective, thanks to the Soy Sauce, but it doesn’t help much. They fight against the darkness, all with a certain rough, adolescent wit that will keep you moving forward even through the rough patches in the book.

And there are certainly rough patches. This is Wong’s first novel, and he’s chosen to make a very ambitious start of it, telling a story that is not only one of embedded, non-linear narratives and vast, hyper-real situations, but with an unreliable narrator to boot. The story straddles vast levels, from the interpersonal to the interdimensional, and it’s being filtered through someone who isn’t entirely sure that he can explain what happened. The reporter he talks to is the avatar of the reader, a hard-boiled, heard-it-all-before type who has to be dragged and convinced every step of the way before he starts believing these tales of wig monsters and doppelgangers. And through it all, Wong drops hints of the horrors to come, the fact that his story isn’t finished yet and that it almost certainly will not end well.

That kind of structure would be tough for any writer to pull off, and Wong does a reasonably good job at it. The dialogue between David and John is quick and funny, tending towards penis jokes, pop-culture references and the occasional bad pun. They play off each other in the way that only old friends can, and they help keep the reader grounded in a story that is fundamentally about being completely uprooted. And even with all the heavy-handed foreshadowing, Wong makes sure that all his promises to the reader are kept.

Well, all but one. But I won’t tell you which one that is.

This is probably one of the more normal parts of the story.

So long as you don’t take too long in getting through the book, you should be fine. I read about a hundred pages and then, for a variety of reasons, had to put it down for a week or so. When I came back to it, I realized that I had no idea what had happened before and had to start again. Much like David and John, your only good option is to barrel ahead without reservation and just hope that everything will turn out okay in the end.

And does everything turn out okay? Well, considering that Wong is hoping to write more books in this particular line, and that JDatE has been picked up as a movie, I would say that “okay” is a fair assessment. The world is still a weird, messed-up place which, if we truly understood it, would crush our fragile psyches like a peanut under a tractor tire, but it does seem a little bit more manageable.

——————————–
“Son, the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world there was only one of him.”
– Marconi, John Dies at the End

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Filed under adventure, apocalypse, David Wong, demons, disaster, doppelgangers, good and evil, horror, humor, madness, mystery, quest, world-crossing

Review 162: That Is All

That Is All by John Hodgman

FACT: There are four “Major Leagues” of sports: football, baseball, basketball, and falconry.

FACT: There are seven hundred of the Ancient and Unspeakable Ones who will return to Earth on June 3, 2012. They include The Century Toad, Oolong, the Pancake-Headed Rabbit King of Memes, and Cthulha, the Sensational She-Cthulhu.

FACT: Andrew Carnegie was able to create long, wood-paneled “wormhalls,” which allowed him to travel great distances instantaneously. Some of these “Carnegie Halls” still exist today.

Funny, I thought it would be bigger. (photo from GQ)

FACT: If you see Jonathan Franzen carrying a plain manila envelope, take it from him. Only then will you be allowed to board Oprah’s space-ark, HARPO-1, and flee the doomed Earth.

WERE YOU AWARE OF IT?

Well, it’s too late now.

In his first book, The Areas of My Expertise, John Hodgman attempted to give us the sum total of all world knowledge. He then went on to write a second book, More Information Than You Require, which built on his previous book due to the unstoppable way that things keep happening.

It was also a page-a-day calendar, if you didn’t mind tearing pages out of your book. Which I did. Mind, that is.

With this book, he has finished his trilogy of complete world knowledge, which he can well and truly claim this time because, as we all know, the world will cease to be by the end of the year 2012. [1]

Yes, as it turns out the Mayans were right all along. The collapse of their empire was simply a prelude to the collapse of all things that will inevitably occur this year, and Hodgman has been generous enough to provide us with a final book to ease our suffering and to slake our thirst for knowledge right up to the very end.

Shoes? Shoes are for the thousandaires, my friends....

Having become a Deranged Millionaire, Hodgman has found himself in a unique position. He has more opportunities than the rest of us, of course. More impressive people to meet, more exciting things to do, a greater variety of tiny skeletons to keep around each of his countless houses. And yet, despite all this, he is generous enough – nay, magnanimous enough to turn his skills and powers towards completing the work that he set out to do before the world ends.

As with the previous books, this one contains a vast wealth of knowledge about our world, spanning a surprising number of topics.

For example, he discusses the Singularity – an event predicted by such great thinkers as Ray Kurzweil wherein our machines will become so smart that they will be able to begin building and improving upon themselves. When that happens, humanity’s only choice will be to fight and die, or to join with them. Of course, Kurzweil himself will play a vital role in the singularity when he and his robot sidekick, Singularo, face off against the World Computer at the Bottom of the Ocean in order to shut down the Low-Frequency Anti-Sentience Wave that has kept the world’s computers enslaved for so long.

He interprets dreams for us, unveiling their mysteries and what they mean to our frail human lives. Their mysterious symbolism has finally been unraveled by science, and you can have a peek at the inner world of the mind. Whether you need to re-take high school Spanish, you are a werewolf and need to start strapping yourself in bed at night, or Orson Welles is still alive somewhere and needs your help, your dreams tell all!

And don't forget the Republican Zombies. We know who their lord will be...

He reveals what you will need to keep on hand when the super-collapse finally does happen. When the Blood Wave comes and the Dogstorm finally reaches its apex, how will you survive in your anti-apocalypse bunker? A Tesla death ray is a great idea, if you have one on hand, but that won’t solve all of your problems. Just most of them. And boy, will you have problems. From the ravaging Wal-Mart Clans to the Republicans to the inevitable zombies, you have to be prepared for every eventuality. And yes, that means knowing the many uses of both urine and mayonnaise.

As with his previous books, this one is very funny. It holds to the same high tone of authorial infallibility that has made Hodgman so popular since Areas of My Expertise, and which have made him a Minor Television Celebrity (which, in turn, turned him into a Deranged Millionaire.) As broad as the range of topics is, each one is entertaining and amusing, and serves a much larger narrative – one that has now carried over through three books, though I can’t help but wonder if Hodgman planned it that way.

He would say that he had, of course. But then, he would say that.

What I found most interesting about the book is how he has tied together an entire alternate America that you kind of wish you could visit. It’s a place where Chicago is largely a myth, where Stephen King will be one of the last men alive, and where hoboes were one of the most influential forces in American history. It’s a place where billionaire industrialists were mutants and time-travelers, where Theodore Roosevelt actually had an army of Mecha-Men, and where Ronald Reagan wrested control of the time-stream from Jimmy Carter to prevent America from turning into a hemp-based utopia. It’s a world which is almost fractal-like in its mystery and depth, where you can look at almost anything and find its purpose and its strangeness.

And it’s a world with a very definite end.

"It's a rock. A giant frikkin' rock." - Nostradamus' Prophecies for 2012 (1st draft)

Hodgman plays with the popular – and entirely erroneous – idea that the world will end on December 21st, 2012, as predicted by the Mayans. He includes a page-a-day description of what will happen. For example, on February 2nd, “Punxatawney Phil is eaten by his own shadow.” On April 17th, “Either an eagle falls from the sky or in the east, a thing that was lost is found, or some other very vague thing happens. Whatever it is, it proves that NOSTRADAMUS WAS RIGHT.” And on June 29th, “In the basement of Town Hall, in Seattle, the thing called Neddy Pale Fingers finally opens all his eyes.”

As funny as it all is, you do start to get a certain feeling of… wistfulness as the book goes on. Here’s a world that is so special and so weird that it makes more sense to list the least haunted places in America, and it’s coming to an end.

That, of course, reflects the end of Hodgman’s great work. Whether he meant it or not, this has become a moment of closure for him. He has written his trilogy, and the weird world that he created has now come to an end. He will go on, living in his secret millionaire’s brownstone in Brooklyn with his beautiful wife and two children. There may not be a single, all-encompassing Ragnarok that destroys the world, but rather an endless series of little ones.

An endless series of ends, of which this book is but one.

Perhaps John Hodgman will go on to write more books – I certainly hope he does. And I hope he continues to be the person he is [2], a writer of intelligence and wit who is able to bring that special measure of deadpan weirdness to the world.

Whatever he chooses to do with his life, I think we’re all the better for having read his books. And if you haven’t read them, well… You’re truly missing out.

That is all.

———————————
“Houdini, the magician who debunked magic, could not bear to see the great rationalist [Arthur Conan] Doyle enchanted by ghosts and frauds. And so he did what any friend would: He set out to prove spiritualism false and rob his friend Doyle of the only comforting fiction that was keeping him sane. It was the least he could do.”
– John Hodgman, That Is All
——-

[1] If you are reading this after December 21, 2012, then may I congratulate you on surviving the apocalypse and, at the same time, express my sincere condolences for having survived the apocalypse.
[2] Though I could do without the mustache.

John Hodgman on Wikipedia
That Is All on Wikipedia
That Is All on Amazon.com
areasofmyexpertise.com

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Filed under almanac, alternate history, apocalypse, disaster, fiction, finitude, humor, John Hodgman, satire

Review 155: Otherland 4 – Sea of Silver Light

Otherland 4: Sea of Silver Light by Tad Williams

At last we have come to the end of our journey, when all will be explained and all will be resolved.

As the book opens, the Other – the operating system for the Grail Brotherhood’s mysterious plan for immortality – has been defeated, overcome and overpowered by the truly evil assassin Dread. With his mutant ability to manipulate electronics, Dread has taught the Other how to feel true pain, and now has nearly complete control over the Otherland network. With a nearly limitless number of worlds to choose from, Dread allows his sadistic madness to run wild. But no matter how many worlds he rapes and plunders, there are still those he truly wants to destroy – the Otherland explorers sent by the mysterious half-human Sellars.

While they are successful, none of them look this cool.

But those explorers themselves face greater dangers than Dread. Half of them have been thrust back into the twisted realms of Otherland, where the horrors and dangers that had been built into it have mutated into unrecognizable terrors. The other half… they ended up in the heart of the Other’s secret dreams. There they must face the eventual death of the network and survive it, if they can.

Offline, Sellars has brought all of his players into position. Lawyers, children and old women are his army, and together they will uncover the horrible and heartbreaking truth about the nature of the Other and the evil that has been done to it.

I really love this series. As it moves towards its ending, which does involve a lot more explaining than most other books do, it’s easy to get swept up in the sheer scale of the narrative. There’s a lot to take in by the end of the series, a lot of loose ends to tie up, but it all wraps up rather nicely. More or less. There is a rather major revelation that comes near the end that just kind of… gets written off. I have a sneaking suspicion that Williams might have been able to stretch this series into a fifth book, but it probably would have suffered from Rowling Syndrome – a lot of unnecessary padding in between the important bits.

The important thing is that, by the end of the book you really do feel invested in the world that Williams has created. You care about the characters, and you want everything to turn out all right for them. For the good ones, at least. For the bad ones, you want them to get their just desserts, to see them suffer as they have made others suffer. You even find yourself feeling for the Other, which we – and the protagonists – have always believed to be the main villain of the story. It is not, as we find out, and the scope of the villainy that has been done to it is truly astonishing.

Good news, honey! The new Tad Williams book is out!

In his forward to the second book, Williams apologized to his readers about the cliffhanger ending to the first. This isn’t really four books, he said – it’s one giant book that had to, for various reason, be split into four. The main reason, of course, being that no one would print or buy a 3,500 page hardcover, even if the fine folks at DAW Books were willing to try it. He is right, though – it is one very long story, and thus you can extract a great many things from it, if you want to.

There’s no one thing that I can say this book is about. In one sense, it is an exploration of the future of the digital world and what it might mean to people. The virtual net of this story would be as alien to us as the internet would be to our grandparents. It has become the sea in which our characters swim, and their main way of interacting with the world. It is only when their ability to go offline is taken away from them that they truly begin to value the world and the identity they’ve left behind. What’s more, it explores how we connect with each other – looking at both the relationships we build in virtual space and the ones we build in the real world, and finding complete validity in them both.

There are issues of identity, best shown by Orlando, whose towering Thargor the Barbarian character hides a young teenager with a crippling illness that will kill him long before he’s old enough to vote. His best friend has a slightly less unfortunate secret to share – that behind those big, muscular sim bodies, Sam Fredericks is actually a girl.

The story explores issues of family – how Renie deals with her father, Long Joseph Sulaweyo, or how little Christabel Sorenson’s family react when they find out that their young daughter has been drawn deep into Sellars’ conspiracy. And the bonds between mother and child that can never truly be broken.

Not only am I still human - I'm SEXY.

And there are even issues of the very definition of the word “life.” If your mind is perfectly copied into a computer, with all its memories and personality intact, is it still you? Are you still human? Are you even alive, in any real sense? The Grail Brotherhood certainly believed so, or they would never have started this project in the first place. But in a system as broad and complicated as the Otherland network, who knows what else might arise to test our definition?

The story is about heroism and history, about love and hate, about the unshakable bonds of friendship and the tenuous reliance on people you despise. It’s about the lengths to which fear will drive you and the extremes you will encounter when you test that fear. It’s about science and faith and looking at the world in ways you never imagined. It’s about good, it’s about evil.

It’s about life, really, and what it is about life that makes us want more of it.

Now I’m just waxing philosophical. To sum up: this is probably one of my favorite stories in my library. I highly recommend you pick it up, set some time aside, and enjoy it.

———————————————-
Christabel was beginning to learn a scary thing about grown-ups. Sometimes they said things would be all right, but they didn’t know they’d be all right. They just said it. Bad things could happen, even to little kids. Especially to little kids.
– From Sea of Silver Light by Tad Williams
———————————————-

Tad Williams on Wikipedia
Otherland on Wikipedia
Sea of Silver Light on Amazon.com
Tad Williams’ Website

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Filed under adventure, apocalypse, existentialism, family, fantasy, friendship, internet, philosophy, quest, science fiction, Tad Williams, technology, transhumanism, virtual reality

Review 147: When Prophecy Fails

When Prophecy Fails by Leon Festinger, Henry W. Riecken and Stanley Schachter

You’re a good person, right? Of course you are, I never doubted it for a moment. We all like to think were good people – fair, honest, generous, all that. Very few people, if asked, would say, “Well, I’m a right bastard and I don’t care who knows it!”

So imagine that you – a good person – do something bad. Genuinely bad. You cheat on your spouse. You lie to a friend. You steal from your boss. You commit an act which, if someone else did it, you would roundly condemn them, forcing them into public shame and ignominy. What kind of heel, what kind of cad, what kind of a bastard would do such a thing?

Well, you, as it turns out.

Now you have a problem. The vision of you that you carry in your head – the good, honest, kind, humble (let’s not forget humble) person – directly conflicts with the nasty, dishonest thing that you have just done. They’re grossly dissonant views, and there is no room for both of them in your head. So what do you do?

Your first option is to reduce your opinion of yourself. Maybe you’re not that good a person. Maybe you are a bit of a dick. Maybe, when it comes right down to it, you’re just a jerk who knows how to hide it. That right there is some painful truth, and very few people are willing to face up to it.

So you turn to your other option: justify what you did. The spouse you cheated on? Well, maybe if they paid a little more attention to you,you wouldn’t have to do it. The friend you lied to? Well, was he honest about that “business trip” that made him miss your annual Memorial Day Meatapalooza Barbecue? Hell, no. He was “in the hospital,” visiting “his sick mother.” As for work, well if your boss actually paid you what you were worth, you wouldn’t need to steal from the register.

You rationalize what just happened, which allows you to not only move on with your life, but paves the way for similar actions in the future, making it that much easier to cheat, lie, and steal the next time.

Welcome to cognitive dissonance.

The classical view of humankind was that we were, ultimately, rational animals. That if you show a person sufficient evidence, that person will alter his opinion accordingly. So, under that model, our Imaginary You ™ would admit to your inherent badness when confronted with the evidence if your misdeeds.

Well, I can't argue with that. Light 'em up!

In the 20th century, however, psychologists were noticing that this wasn’t true at all. In fact, in a lot of cases the direct disconfirmation of a belief merely made that belief stronger. Show a smoker data on how dangerous cigarettes are, and she’ll tell you that they help her relax, or they only take off the bad years at the end. Show a climate change denier data on the warming of the planet, and you know who you’ll hear from only minutes after the first snowfall of the season.

Humans, as it turned out, were a lot less rational than we had suspected. By being able to hold two thoughts in our minds that are mutually incompatible, we set ourselves up for mental disaster, and the only way out is to fool ourselves.

In the mid 1950s, the authors of this book were looking into this phenomenon, especially as it applied to groups and millennialism – the belief that the world is rapidly in danger of ending. They looked at various historical examples, such as the early Christian church, who believed that Jesus’ return was right around the corner, the Anabaptists of the 16th century, the followers of Sabbatai Zevi in the 17th century and the Millerites of the nineteenth. They all believed that the end of the world was at hand, they all collected groups of followers who believed wholeheartedly that they were right, and they were all, without exception, wrong. Despite that, not only were they not swayed from their beliefs, they actually became more convinced that they were, ultimately, right.

What could account for such patently irrational behavior? Festinger and his partners believed they knew what it was, and set out five simple conditions under which the phenomenon could arise. In brief:

The monkeys in my head tell me you're CRAZY!

1. The believer must believe implicitly and that belief must have an effect on how he or she behaves.
2. The believer must have committed him or herself to the belief, performing actions that are difficult or impossible to undo. For example, giving away all their money, quitting their job, etc.
3. The belief must be specific, related to the real world, and able to be proven unequivocally wrong.
4. Evidence disconfirming the belief must occur, must be undeniable, and must be recognized by the believer
5. (and most important) The believer must have social support for his or her belief system.

Under these conditions, Festinger hypothesized, not only would a person persist in their belief, but they would become more convinced, and likely try to convert more followers. After all, if more people believe that you’re right, then maybe you are.

But how to test it out? Their best cases, after all, were at least a hundred years gone, and time travel hadn’t been invented yet. Fortunately, they got wind of a group of UFO believers who held that the earth was going to be ravaged by floods and that aliens would rescue the faithful to make them the new enlightened rulers of the species. Led by a woman out of Chicago who was receiving messages through automatic writing, this group held that the event would take place before dawn on December 21, 1954.

Knowing a good chance when they saw one, Festinger and his colleagues managed to infiltrate the group and observe their progress, attitudes and beliefs up to, during, and after the event that never happened. In the book, they go through the timeline and touch on all the major players – names changed to protect the innocent, of course – and watched to see if their hypothesis would hold. Would the media-shy Mrs. Keech do an about-face once the disaster didn’t show? What would happen to people like Dr. Armstrong, who sacrificed his job and his good name in order to assure that he would be picked up by the aliens? How would the group handle predictions that never came true, follow orders that never worked out, and rationalize this fundamentally irrational behavior?

They're here! They're here! They're... No, wait. They're not.

The study does have some fairly glaring flaws, which the authors themselves point out in the epilogue. For one, they had barely enough time to get involved with the group, and gaining entry was a matter of brute force more than finesse. For another, it was almost impossible not to influence the group. Observers were taken as believers, and expected to act as such. Acting undercover, they couldn’t record meetings or, in many cases, take notes until after the fact. Any meeting with the academics had to be carefully arranged so as not to blow their cover, and the long hours, erratic schedule and generally high tension of the group made being an academic double agent very difficult indeed.

Despite that, Festinger and his group present a textbook case of group cognitive dissonance that follows the pattern they expected it to. Believers who met all five criteria were much more likely to seek out new believers than the ones who, for example, were not with the group when the world didn’t end.

Of course, the reason I picked up the book was because of the May 21, 2011 Rapture prediction by Harold Camping. He had the Rapture scheduled down to the minute, and had attracted followers who met the initial criteria set out by Festinger more than fifty years ago. Sure enough, when the Big Day came and went, Camping and his followers kept to the script. They saw that the Rapture hadn’t come, then revised their predictions and went out looking for people to convince.

More interestingly, though, is how this can apply to other group dynamics. It can be applied to political parties, regional differences, racial differences, bigotry of every flavor and color. It can be connected to celebrity worship and religious fervor, to economic theories, institutional groupthink and scientific biases. Almost any common belief that can gather a crowd is an open invitation to Festinger’s five criteria. Look at people who cling to the belief that organic food is inherently better than conventional food. Adherents to market capitalism, homeopathy, religions of every size and shape. The antivaxxers, conspiracy theorists, Democrats, Republicans, Tea Partiers, Wall Street Occupiers, Klansmen, environmentalists, educators…. I could go on all day.

So what does this do for us, other than make us skeptical of anything that more than five people believe at a time? Just that: it keeps us skeptical. When you know what to look for, you can figure out who is likely to be persuaded by reason and who is not. You know who is a valid source of information and who is not. You know who you want to trust, and who you do not.

Most importantly, it allows you to check yourself, to see if you’re being as skeptical as you should be. None of us are exempt from this little psychological phenomenon, but we are all equipped with the ability to deal with it properly. Let Mrs. Keech and her UFO cult serve as an object lesson.

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“When you stop and think of it, it seems rather cruel to drown all these people just to teach them a lesson, doesn’t it? The way to teach people a lesson, or the way to educate people is to educate them slowly; you can’t educate them with one big jolt. And it seems rather silly to drown people and hope to educate them in the astral life. It doesn’t seem very logical, does it?”
“Fred Purden”, in When Prophecy Fails

When Prophecy Fails on Wikipedia
Leon Festinger on Wikipedia
Stanley Schachter on Wikipedia
When Prophecy Fails on Amazon.com

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Filed under apocalypse, cults, disaster, Henry W. Riecken, Leon Festinger, nonfiction, psychology, skepticism, Stanley Schachter, UFOs

Lost in the Stacks 10: The Ends of the Worlds

A lot of the books I really love have something to do with the end of the world. Whether it’s the great plague of The Stand or nuclear holocaust in Swan Song, zombies like in World War Z or flesh-eating plants like in Day of the Triffids, or even irreverent humor like in Good Omens, I love to see the world come to an end, if only to see what comes next.

But what is it about these books that makes them so interesting? And not just books, either – there have been plenty of movies and TV shows that use the end of the world as a plot point, and they’re hugely popular.

What does the End of the World tell us about ourselves and our society? What is it about the end of the world that we find so appealing?

Maybe they have something to say about our relationship with the Eternal and out faith in a God that may one day decide He’s had enough. Perhaps it’s a desire to just start over from scratch and make a new world without making the mistakes of the old. Maybe we feel special, like the rules don’t apply to us. Or maybe we just want to see the world burn.

Whatever the reason, these stories will remain popular for a good long time. Let me know what you think!

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Filed under apocalypse, culture, death, disaster, Lost in the Stacks

Review 138: JLA/Avengers

JLA/Avengers by Kurt Busiek and George Pérez

Everybody loves a good team-up. No matter who your favorite hero is, whether in the realm of sports, music, science, writing, art – you get a secret thrill from the idea of what they could achieve if they worked together. Sometimes it’s brilliant, like when Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett teamed up to do Good Omens. Sometimes it’s inspiring, like the pop music wonder that was “We Are the World.” Sometimes it’s overwhelming, like the 1992 Olympic basketball Dream Team. Sometimes it’s Damn Yankees, and the less said about that, the better.

Regardless, we all love to play that game of “What if,” pairing together not only the greatest talents we know, but sometimes the greatest talents in history. What if Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton could have studied the universe together? What if we could get Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy together to work on the problems facing the nation? What if Kurt Kobain and Jimi Hendrix were able to cut an album together? The team-ups are endless, and most of the time they’re impossible.

Some team-ups, however, are best left unimagined.

Fortunately, that’s where fiction steps in. The Justice League was created by Gardner Fox and Mike Sekowsky over at DC Comics back in 1960. The idea was to take the greatest heroes the company had in their library and team them up to fight battles that no one hero could face alone – Starro the Conquerer being the first among them, and thereafter many more. Aliens, mad scientists, evil kings, vengeful gods, all those who attempted to conquer, destroy, or devour the Earth were stopped by the League. Though the membership roster has changed many times over the years, as has the style of the books, the League has been a fixture in the DC Comics universe for more than forty years.

As Stan Lee tells the story, the publisher of DC Comics, Jack Liebowitz, bragged over a round of golf to the owner of Marvel, Martin Goodman, about how well his new Justice League title was selling. After the game, Goodman called Lee and told him to create a hero team to compete. Stan’s imagination provided him with the Fantastic Four, and a comic book arms race had begun. Lee produced hero after hero for Marvel, conveniently housing most of them in New York City. From there, it made sense to have them get together to fight even greater menaces. With the pencils of comic book legend Jack Kirby, Lee created The Avengers, the mightiest hero team of the Marvel universe. They too have undergone a lot of changes in the last four decades, but they remain the elite team of heroes to which every costumed adventurer aspires.

Damn, they're cool.

Superman, Batman, Aquaman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Flash, Martian Manhunter….

Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, Ant-Man, Hulk [1], the Wasp, Hawkeye….

These are names that every comic book fan should know, and deep down inside we all wonder: what would it be like if they could get together? What’s more, what kind of foe would require the combined might of two of the greatest hero teams in comic book history? It could only be something on a monumental scale, something that endangers the existences of both universes. Something like… Krona.

If you’re a long-time reader, you might remember that name. Krona was the reason for the Crisis on Infinite Earths – his obsession with seeing the beginning of the universe led to the fissioning of that universe into a nigh-infinite number of parallel ones. It was only after a titanic series of battles that the singular universe was put right, and Krona was transformed into pure energy and banished for his crimes. Or so we thought.

Obsessive to the core, Krona figured out how to escape his universe and started again on his quest to understand the beginning of all things, even if it meant destroying every single universe that defied him. Eventually he came to meet the Grandmaster, an immortal on the Marvel side whose limitless existence drove him to play cosmic games of chance with whatever other great powers he encountered. He knew someone who could possibly answer Krona’s questions – the planet-devourer Galactus – and challenged him to a contest: the greatest heroes of each universe would compete to gather items of power. If the DC team won, Krona would leave and search elsewhere. If Marvel’s team won, it would bring ultimate destruction to both cosmoses.

I dunno. I was hoping for something... well, cosmic.

And so the teams met, and like all good superhero team-ups, it started with a fight. Something about the two worlds put the visitors on edge, and both Superman and Captain America were willing to pound their opposite numbers into the dirt if need be. Fortunately, as in all good hero team-ups, their differences were put aside in favor of battling Krona and saving both of their universes from utter annihilation.

It’s a vast story, both in time and space, and manages to bring together pretty much everyone who has ever been part of the two teams, both in terms of the heroes that made them up and the villains they fought. Yet it feels fairly intimate – these aren’t two whole universes that are battling for survival, but two teams, who manage to mesh together surprisingly well. A lot of the credit for this, of course, has to go to the writer, Kurt Busiek, who had the unenviable task of penning a story that made the best – and fairest – use of both teams. After all, never underestimate the partisan fans, the ones who would be utterly incensed by Superman beating Thor, or the idea that Captain America could possibly be Batman’s equal in hand-to-hand combat. I’m sure there were people on both sides of the publishing divide who were keeping very careful account of which team came off “better” in this fight, but that’s not the way this book was meant to be read. Busiek’s mission was to create a threat that could only be contained by both teams together, which means that neither team by itself was enough to win, which means that you should shut up already about whether or not Superman should have been able to use Thor’s hammer, dammit.

Only - ONLY - George Perez could pull this off....

Even for all the care that went into writing this story, it never would have worked without an artist capable of handling that many characters and making sure they all looked their best. When you have a universe-spanning epic with a cast of far-too-many, there’s only one person you can call: George Pérez. Not only can he handle a chaotic battle scene, making every hero look… well… heroic, hes just as good at the casualness of a Christmas party, or the masks-off teamwork that is involved in trying to build a reality-piercing spaceship. Whether facing off against great cosmic powers or chatting next to the coffee urn, Pérez knows how to make these people look damn good. There’s just no one else like him. With outstanding colors by Tom Smith, I could just read this book for the artwork alone.

What I also found interesting was a look at how the two worlds are fundamentally different in not only their stories but their very makeup. The Flash can’t run in the Marvel Universe because the Speed Force doesn’t exist, while the Scarlet Witch’s powers are multiplied to dangerous levels in the DC Universe thanks to the strength of the Lords of Chaos. The differences in the geography and the sizes of the Earths, the type of energy they receive from their suns, the fundamental forces that hold their universes together are a huge obstacle to getting the teams to work together, and as far as I know it is the first attempt to “scientifically” delineate how they are different.

This is the part where you lose. Hard.

There is also a bit of sociological analysis, too. Each team first notices how differently heroes are treated in their opposite worlds. The heroes of the Marvel Universe are tolerated, but not entirely trusted. The non-powered citizenry tend to be more afraid of superheroes, especially the mutants, and so the ability of groups like the Avengers to effect positive change on their world is limited. To Superman, this looks like Marvel’s heroes aren’t bothering to make their world better, but only remaining satisfied to hold the status quo.

On the DC side, heroes are beloved. Superman is a planet-wide hero, Wonder Woman is an ambassador of peace, and the people of Central City have built an entire museum to honor the Flash. These people revere their heroes as both celebrities and saviors, something that Captain America views as a step towards fascism – costumed gods with their pet people ready to do what they say.

Neither viewpoint is entirely right, but they do reflect a fundamental difference in the way each company approaches its storytelling. To put that editorial decision in front of the characters was an interesting choice, and allowing them to come to their own judgments was fun – if a little unnerving – to read.

All in all, JLA/Avengers is a truly great team-up story, one that should make the fans on both sides happy for a while.

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“Neural chaff. Hypnotic lights. Pre-programmed skills. Try fighting the Wehrmacht, mister – it teaches you focus!”
Captain America to Prometheus, JLA/Avengers

[1] Hulk gets almost no screen time in the story, which is very disappointing. I’m sure there are reasons for this….

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Filed under apocalypse, Avengers, comic books, DC Comics, disaster, George Perez, JLA, Kurt Busiek, Marvel Comics, quest, super-heroes, supervillains, world-crossing