Category Archives: ethics

Books about or featuring the theme of ethics.

Review 161: Fuzzy Nation

Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi

Once upon a time, there was a man named H. Beam Piper, and he wrote a series of books that began with Little Fuzzy, a tale of space-going humans who have to learn to live on a world with an adorably cute, yet sentient, species. While I haven’t read these books, my research tells me that they’re the type of fun, optimistic science fiction that is so emblematic of the early 60s. They dealt not only with the issues of human expansion into space, but with what it means to be an intelligent, sentient species. Given that we only have one case study – us – that definition will necessarily be narrow, and challenged. Humans have trouble relating with other humans who live only a six hour drive away, after all. Being able to relate to a non-human sentience that evolved on another planet will be a massive philosophical undertaking.

In 2010, John Scalzi announced on his blog that he had done a “reboot” of Piper’s work, revisiting the characters, themes and world that Piper had created and seeing what he could do with them. He did this partly because it seemed like a good idea, but also because it was something that hadn’t been done before in literature.

Some reboots are more imaginative than others. (Art by Evan Shaner)

If you’re a fan of science fiction, you know that stories from the visual media – TV and movies especially – get rebooted from time to time. The most notable recent examples are “Star Trek” and “Battlestar Galactica,” and include shows like “Smallville” and the most recent run of Batman movies. If you read comics, you know this happens all the time as well, in ways big and small. Characters like Green Lantern, Thor, and the Fantastic Four are fundamentally the same as when they were created, but have evolved in ways their creators may have never expected.

In all of these examples, the fundamental core of each story is kept from the original – the world, the characters, the themes – and given new life. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, and Scalzi felt that Piper’s world was good enough and interesting enough that it deserved to be re-introduced to a modern audience who might not otherwise know about it.

So, just for fun, he started writing Fuzzy Nation, a book that uses the characters and ideas from Little Fuzzy, the first of Piper’s books, and builds an entirely new story out of them. What resulted was a story that he thought was good enough to let out into the wild, and so – with the help of some intellectual property law and the blessing of Piper’s estate – he published Fuzzy Nation in 2011.

As I said, I haven’t read the original Piper books, but if they’re half as much fun to read as this one was, then I have to pick them up.

Sorry, I was looking for something pretty. Try again.

In the future, humankind has expanded out into space, as we so often do. With us, we have taken that peculiarly human trait, naked avarice, and brought it with us. The Zarathustra Corporation (ZaraCorp for short) is one of the leaders in exploiting and extracting usable resources from a planet. They’ve cornered the market on Sunstones – a decorative rock that glows with its wearer’s body heat and makes diamonds look like beach pebbles – and turned the ravaging of worlds into an art. A horribly environmentally destructive art.

Jack Holloway is a contract surveyor, a former trial lawyer, and not a very nice man. He helps ZaraCorp search for Sunstones on the hostile world of Zara XXIII, with the help of Carl, a dog with a fondness for explosions. Holloway finds seams of Sunstone and gets his cut of the money. It’s a nice enough arrangement out on a backwater world, and it doesn’t get complicated until he (and Carl) discover a Sunstone deposit that could fill the company’s coffers for decades.

At the same time, he encounters a curious form of life – or rather, it encounters him. Small, bipedal, intensely curious and undeniably clever, the Fuzzies (as Jack names them) seem to be truly remarkable animals. It is not until the ZaraCorp field biologist (and Jack’s former girlfriend), Janice Wangai, suggests that they might be sentient that things get truly complicated. After all, Colonial law is very clear on what companies like ZaraCorp are and are not allowed to do on each planet they run, and “ravaging the world of another sentient species” is pretty much at the top of their Do Not list.

The Fuzzies would make an AMAZING vest...

It soon becomes a race to save the Fuzzies from ZaraCorp and its army of lawyers. If they win, the Fuzzies will have a planet on which they can grow and thrive. If ZaraCorp wins, they’ll have nothing but the least useful bits of dirt and shrubbery left. Holloway has to do a good thing but he has to do it his way – a way that rarely has him acting like a good man.

The first thing I thought when I finished this, actually, was, “I needed that.” My reading choices for a while have been kind of heavy, or at least not a whole lot of fun to read. Good, yes, but not fun. I know this because I find myself doing things that aren’t reading – listening to podcasts, reading through articles I’ve saved on Instapaper, going through old columns at Cracked.com, things like that. With this book, though, there was none of that stalling. I read it every chance I could and blew through the whole thing in two days. So let that be take-home lesson number one: this book is fun to read.

And while it is an adventure, it does hit on some interesting and contemporary topics, not the least of which is the question of how ethically a corporation should be expected to behave. ZaraCorp, like any company, has a primary mission to make money, especially as the company is publicly traded. They have to get money to those stockholders who have invested in them so that they can make more money to exploit more resources. And that’s a point that Scalzi has made in his own blog: “I think the majority [of] corporations act logically and rationally and in a manner consistent with the general reason for their existence,” he writes. “And the reason most corporations exist — and most large multinational corporations in particular — is simple: To maximize shareholder value.”

Go on - take the pension fund. They'll probably just waste it on food...

In Fuzzy Nation, he takes this to the place where corporate rational self-interest turns bad. You see, it is perfectly possible for a corporation to achieve its goal while still being environmentally responsible or socially conscious. In other words, to fulfill its responsibility to the shareholders without violating the ethical or moral codes of the people who actually make up those groups.

But there are those who are all too willing to put the fiduciary responsibility of the corporation above the ethical responsibilities of people, and that’s where the Evil Corporation comes in. ZaraCorp fits this to a T. They see nothing but profits in Zara XXIII, and if the Fuzzies stand in their way – sentient or not – they will do whatever is necessary to eliminate them while at the same time doing their level best to stay within the legal bounds prescribed by the Colonial Authority. Or not to get caught crossing them, at least.

In the end, this becomes about why we do what we do, and how we project those reasons onto other people. ZaraCorp is motivated by untempered greed, and assumes that Holloway will be too. Holloway is interested in himself, but finds himself needing to be interested in other people. The motivations of the Fuzzies, for most of the book, is unclear, but they too have to learn the difference between what they think other people want and what they really want.

It’s a fast, tight book that is great fun to read, has characters that you like, even if they’re despicable, and has some moments of wonderful emotion that come around the corner and hit you like a hammer. It’s part philosophical adventure, part legal thriller, and part sarcastic comedy, verging on satire. Books like this are why I keep coming back to Scalzi.

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“…with all due respect for your considerable skills and intellect, the fact of the matter is that you have absolutely no clue what it is I want out of this.”
– Jack Holloway, Fuzzy Nation
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John Scalzi on Wikipedia
Fuzzy Nation on Amazon.com
John Scalzi’s blog
H. Beam Piper on Wikipedia
Little Fuzzy on Wikipedia

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Filed under aliens, business, colonization, corporations, ethics, first contact, humor, John Scalzi, morality, science fiction

Review 143: Mad Men and Philosophy

Mad Men and Philosophy edited by Rod Carveth and James B. South

If you had asked me a few years ago which television show you should absolutely make time to watch, I would have immediately told you to start watching Mad Men. Deep, complicated, and made with great attention to detail, it is a show that rewards viewers. The characters reveal themselves over time, minor plot elements emerge as major turning points, and they give us 21st-century viewers a chance to look at the ’60s in a whole new light. The show had had three outstanding seasons, and up until that point, I would have recommended it unreservedly.

What were they THINKING??

Until they dropped my brother from the cast.

I understand that I did not really default to my rational soul in this instance. The third season was one giant setup for the surprise ending in which Sterling Cooper is bought out (again) and Don and Lane hatch a plan to break away with all the staff and clients they could carry. In this situation, they needed their strongest people, and when it came down to choosing writers, there was no question that Peggy Olsen was a better writer than Paul Kinsey. It had been shown again and again during the season, so that when Kinsey was left twisting in the wind at the end, it made sense – from a writing perspective.

That didn’t mean I had to like it.

So when season four rolled around, I started to download the episodes, but I resisted watching them. I just sulked. Was I being childish? Immature? Petty? We may never know the answers to those questions, but I can tell you this – the reason I finally gave in and started watching it again was this book.

Oddly enough, this book does not discuss the ethics of office bloodbaths.

Part of the Pop Culture and Philosophy genre of books, this volume takes a deep, intellectual look at the series, examining its characters, its ethics and its messages, to see what kind of lessons we can learn from it. From Aristotle to Ayn Rand, thousands of years of human thinking are illustrated in this tv show, and the authors who have contributed to the book are able to tease fascinating concepts from whiskey and smoke. How do Betty, Joan and Peggy represent second-wave feminism? What are the responsibilities of advertisers to their target audience? How might be Peggy a Nietzschean Superwoman, and why does Pete fail so hard? Is Don Draper a good man, and would Ayn Rand have salivated over him, as Bert Cooper claimed she would? The book is full of interesting ideas, and I’ll share a few of my favorites with you.

In “Pete, Peggy, Don, and the Dialectic of Remembering and Forgetting,” John Fritz examines the Nietzschean virtue of willing forgetfulness and how it applies to these three characters. The way it goes is this: Nietzsche believed that the past should serve the present, that you should be able to use your memories to push yourself forward. Not all memories do this, as we all know, and to hold on to memories that simply hold us back – to live in the past – is detrimental to leading a good life. Pete Campbell, for example, perpetually lives in the past. He can’t forget anything, especially if it is something he perceives as a slight against him. When Ken Cosgrove gets a story published, Pete stews over it, bitter that Ken did something worthwhile and he did not. Rather than do the adult thing – congratulate Ken and move on – Pete cannot let go. He ends up nearly forcing his wife into the arms of another man just to try and match Ken’s accomplishment. Pete’s inability to forget causes him almost constant distress.

Not that I'm holding on to any memories myself, mind you. Perish the thought.

Don is a little better. Don knows that you need to forget things, and tries to live that way. When his estranged brother shows up, Don tells him, “My life moves in only one direction – forward.” He chooses to forget the things he has done if they will interfere with the way his life is going now. When he gets into a car accident, and Peggy has to bail him out, he doesn’t remember to pay her back until she very pointedly reminds him. It’s probable that he used this willing forgetfulness as part of his strategy to cheat on Betty. The only way to live both lives at once is to forget the one that will cause you trouble, and then recall it when it’s time to get some nookie again.

But Don’s not perfect. His memories are triggered again and again – sights and smells bring him back to his childhood, to his abusive father, and to the traumatic day in Korea when he became someone else. Don’s past follows him, like a loyal dog, occasionally nipping at his heels and reminding him where he came from, no matter how much Don would like to forget it.

Peggy, on the other hand, is the champion of willing forgetfulness. The birth of the child she had with Pete is a fantastic example of this, and my favorite moment is when she finally tells Pete what had happened. She sits him down, and very calmly explains that she had his baby and then gave it away, and the tone of her voice is less exciting than someone talking about the new shoes she has bought. Peggy forgot about the baby – she chose to forget about the baby, no matter how much her family and Father Whatawaste tried to remind her. But for this one moment, she unpacked it, held it out at arm’s length just long enough to tell Pete, and then she wrapped it up again and buried it in her mind. Peggy knows that there are things in her past that will hold her back if she clings to them, so she doesn’t. In this way, she is the model of Nietzsche’s virtue of willing forgetfulness.

I mean, I suppose I could still be a little annoyed about the whole thing, but who wouldn't be?

In “‘In on It’: Honesty, Respect, and the Ethics of Advertising,” Andrea Novakovic and Tyler Whitney ask about what ethical rules bind advertising, if any, and how advertisers relate to consumers. The essay centers around the season 2 episode, “A Night to Remember,” wherein Don uses his wife as a demographic model for Heineken beer. During her meticulously-planned dinner party, full of international cuisine, Betty reveals that they are drinking Heineken, from Holland, which comes as a welcome surprise to Don and Duck Phillips. Betty is upset by this, and after the party accuses Don of purposefully embarrassing and humiliating her, and Don doesn’t quite get what the problem is. No surprise there.

But does Betty have a legitimate beef with Don and Sterling Cooper? Well, that depends on why she bought the Heineken. If she bought it because she likes it, or because she had heard good things about it, then no. But she suspects that Don had done his research too well, and that the only reason she picked up those nice green bottles was because he knew her so well that he could make her think she wanted to buy it. From her point of view, he manipulated her, (which in fancy-pants philosophical terms might be called depriving someone of agency) and then laughed about it. Don has shown no respect for his wife and her ability to make choices on her own, and this reflects the larger issue of respect between advertisers and the consumers they target.

You bring back Paul Kinsey and I give you the antidote. For the poison YOU JUST DRANK! AAHH-HAHAHAHAA!!

It is, of course, a challenging topic, even within the show. In the pilot episode, “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,” Don actively rejects psychological profiling in coming up with an ad for Lucky Strike, yet in that season’s finale, “The Wheel,” he is quite clearly using psychological manipulation to sell his idea for Kodak’s Carousel. So what is the difference between profiling Betty to sell beer and using nostalgia to sell a slide projector? It’s a matter of respect. It is easy for people watching the Kodak ad to understand what is going on in an ad that uses their memories to evoke an emotional response. The advertiser respects the consumer’s intelligence and agency, and uses that to sell their product. In Betty’s case, however, the manipulation was more subtle. Display techniques, signage, subtle and professional methods which start from the assumption that the consumer doesn’t know her own mind.

Finally, in “What Fools We Were: Mad Men, Hindsight, and Justification,” Landon W. Schurtz asks the question we all asked about the people in this show: how could they be so dumb? I mean, when Betty’s daughter shows up with a dry-cleaning bag over her head, Betty is angrier about the possible state of her clothes than the chance her daughter could suffocate. When we first meet Sal Romano, he is so ridiculously gay that we can’t believe no one notices. And Sterling-Cooper gleefully take on Richard Nixon as a candidate when we all know what the man is clearly a crook. From our perspective, these things seem completely obvious, yet the characters on Mad Men just don’t seem to know any better. So why is that?

Tell you what I know - "Paul Kinsey: Two-Fisted Copywriter!" I'm telling you, it's Emmy GOLD!

Well, it depends on what you mean by the word “know,” and that’s what Schurtz tries to figure out in this essay. We can know things through direct experience, for example, but Betty has probably never had a daughter asphyxiate on plastic, Don and the others have probably never met an openly gay man, and, well, historians still don’t know how Nixon convinced America that he wasn’t a weasel in an ill-fitting suit. We can know things through the testimony of others, but again – those bits of knowledge hadn’t quite permeated the culture yet. Even if they had, whom could you trust for accurate testimony? Don rejects Doctor Guttman’s suggestions for the Lucky Strike campaign because he rejects the significance of psychological research. The elders of Sterling Cooper continued to reject Pete’s ideas because they didn’t believe young people could know anything worth knowing.

In short, no – the people in the ’60s weren’t stupid. They just didn’t know any better.

Kinsey laughs. He's in a better place now, I'm sure.

This book got me to give up my sulk and start watching Mad Men again. Even though it is clearly diminished with the absence of Paul Kinsey, I was reminded that the show is immensely complex and worth the time to watch. So I am recommending it to all – watch the show. And read the book. Together, they defy the common wisdom that modern entertainment has nothing to offer us. Indeed, they give us a new perspective not only on the show, but on our own lives. Pretty impressive for an hour a week.

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“The basic desire to feel okay is deeply human, but if Don Draper can take this generic human longing and create a desire for a particular product, are we genuinely free?”
– Kevin Guilfoy, “Capitalism and Freedom in the Affluent Society”
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Mad Men and Philosophy on Amazon.com
Mad Men Homepage

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Filed under analysis, consumerism, essays, ethics, James B. South, Mad Men, morality, philosophy, psychology, Rod Carveth, television

Review 129: The Day Watch

The Day Watch by Sergei Lukyanenko

The distribution of this review has been banned as injurious to the cause of the Light. – The Night Watch

The distribution of this review has been banned as injurious to the cause of the Dark. – The Day Watch

The previous book left us with an unbalanced Moscow. The forces of Light gained a powerful ally in the form of Svetlana Nazarova, a potential Great Sorceress. Even before she knew she was an Other – one of that mysterious class of beings who can work magic, who can curse, bless and change their shapes – she was able to create a curse that very nearly destroyed Moscow. She, and the city, were saved through the bravery of Anton Gorodetsky and the Night Watch, who guard against the excesses of the forces of Darkness. In the end, the Light prevailed.

But this battle between Light and Dark is far from over….

Summer camp is different when Others are around

As with The Night Watch, this volume contains three books. In the first, a young witch named Alisa Donnikova has overreached herself. In a fight with the Night Watch, Alisa poured every last drop of her magical energy into supporting her fellow Day Watch members, an act of selflessness that nearly cost her her life. Burned out, she’s directed to take a break at a children’s summer camp in the Crimea. Posing as a camp counselor, she would be in a prime position to feed off the nightmares of impressionable young girls.

A word about Others and their powers. The foundation of an Other’s power comes from humans. While any Other has her own reserves to call on, she may… feed on the normal people around her. The Light Others take happiness and joy – literally. Have you ever been feeling really good, and then somehow the feeling just drains away? That’s what the Light Others do, and it powers them to no end. Much like a flowering shrub, pruning someone’s happiness doesn’t make it go away forever, and it may even come back greater, but still – in order to become stronger, the Light Others have to weaken people.

Those on the side of the Dark, on the other hand, feed off of fear and anger, but when they do, that fear and anger remain. It’s like warming yourself by the fire – as long as you keep feeding it, it’ll keep you warm. A Dark Other at the height of his power could probably super-charge himself just by going to a snowed-in airport for a day. Believe me. This stew of rage and frustration is a little too much for Alisa, however – she must subsist on the “thin broth” that is children’s nightmares.

He's a real catch, ladies!

While she’s there, however, her plan hits a snag in the form of a handsome, solid, beautiful man named Igor. Despite herself, she falls in love with him, and she falls hard.

The fact that he’s a Light Other doesn’t come up until it’s much too late.

The second story brings a mysterious figure to Moscow. Vitaly Rogoza has no memory of who he is or where he came from. All he knows is that he has to go to Moscow, and that he has power – the power of a Dark Other. Despite his personal amnesia, he has no trouble ingratiating himself with the Moscow Day Watch, and soon discovers that his power appears to have no upper limits. Why this should be, no one knows. Is he some Dark magician, beyond classification? Or is he something else entirely – something new and terrible? Whatever he is, what is his goal, and what is his link to the theft of Fafnir’s Talon, a Dark artifact of unspeakable power?

The third story brings it all together – the sad fate of Alisa Dinnokova, the theft of the Talon, and the rise and fall of the Great Sorceress Svetlana Nazarova. What’s more, the greater plans of the Light and the Dark are laid bare – and changed forever.

As before this book is heavily laden with the philosophy of Good versus Evil, Light and Dark. More importantly, it addresses the issues of freedom, a central tenet to the forces of Darkness. How free, they ask, can we really be?

The Light wants to make humanity better. They believe that, given the right influences and incentives, humanity can be great. But they need to be guided. Molded. Shaped. Consequently, the Light occasionally embarks on grand, world-changing plans, few of which actually work out the way they intend.

No one ever said freedom was nice....

The Dark, on the other hand, worships freedom. Every person, they say, should be free to choose his or her own path. If that path means doing good, then so be it. If it means doing evil, well, that’s cool too. The point is that every person is capable of deciding how their lives should be led, and no one – human or Other – should be able to take that freedom away from them.

It’s one of the oldest questions there is – how much freedom do we really deserve? And it’s a question that can never be definitively answered. But in these books, it’s fun to watch it play out.

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“There are some who think that we Dark Ones are evil. But that’s not true at all. We’re simply just. Proud, independent and just. And we decide things for ourselves.”
– Alisa, of the Day Watch, The Day Watch
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The Day Watch on Wikipedia
Sergei Lukyanenko on Wikipedia
Sergei Lukyanenko’s website (in English)
The Day Watch at Amazon.com

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Filed under death, ethics, fantasy, made into movies, mystery, politics, Sergei Lukyanenko, vampires, werewolves, witches, wizardry

Lost in the Stacks 5: Art versus Artist

Scott Adams says some really dickish things, but the Pointy-Haired Boss is still funny to laugh at.

Mel Gibson shows his anti-Semitic side, but Lethal Weapon is still one of the best buddy cop movies of all time.

Dave Sim writes a compelling political drama in his comic book series Cerebus, but then shows himself to be a homophobic misogynist of the highest order.

Once you’ve learned something about your favorite writer or artist, it may poison your view of the art you used to love. How can you reconcile these feelings and still be able to look at yourself in the mirror? The answer [1] is in this month’s edition of Lost in the Stacks: Art versus the Artist! We look at whether art can be considered separately from the person who made it, and what it means to deal with a moral problem that has plagued us since art began. Take a listen and join in the conversation in the comments!

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[1] Disclaimer: answer may not actually be an “answer”

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Filed under art, criticism, ethics, fans, fiction, Lost in the Stacks, morality, reading

Review 124: The Night Watch

The Night Watch by Sergei Lukyanenko

This review has been approved for distribution as conducive to the cause of the Light. – The Night Watch

This review has been approved for distribution as conducive to the cause of the Dark. – The Day Watch

Imagine a world where magic is real. A place where people known as Others are born with powers they don’t understand. Their destinies are unwritten until that fateful day when they first become an Other – when they discover the strange, shadowy and powerful world known as the Twilight – and have to make a choice: will they stand with the Light or with the Dark. Will they dedicate their lives to Good or Evil?

Maybe it ain't what it used to be, but it's still dramatic.... (art by mirerror on DeviantArt)

It’s not an easy decision to make, by any means. Joining either side has its limitations and its rules, for the battle between Good and Evil isn’t what it used to be.

Long ago, it was simple – Good fought Evil, Dark fought Light, and blood was shed on both sides. It was a vicious, unending war that threatened to decimate the world. Finally, the two sides reached an agreement. A Treaty, well deserving of the capital letter. There would be a truce between the two sides, a balance that would be maintained at all costs. Any act of evil would be balanced by an act of goodness, and vice versa. Neither side is to have an advantage.

Part of the Day Watch Auxiliary Brigade

Making sure the peace is kept is the job of the Watches – the Night Watch, staffed by elites of the Light to guard against advances by the Dark, and a Day Watch, staffed by the elites of the Dark to guard against excesses of the Light. We begin our look at the Others of Moscow with a young adept named Anton Sergeeivich Gorodetsky, a wielder of magic and an analyst forced into the more exciting realm of field work. His job is to find out who a pair of vampires are illegally attempting to seduce and stop them. In the process of doing that, and saving the soul of a young Other named Egor, he stumbles upon something that threatens the entire city of Moscow, if not all of Russia. A young woman has a curse upon her head, so horrible and so powerful that the forces of the Light may have no chance to disperse it. If she dies, the city will die with her. If she lives, even worse may befall the world.

There are three stories in this book, somewhat independent but entirely connected. The first details the discovery of Egor and the cursed Svetlana. In the second, an Other of the Light, a maverick who doesn’t know about the rest of the Others, or the Treaty between Light and Dark, is murdering Dark adepts. Somewhat alarmingly, Anton is being framed for the murders. In the third book, Moscow is gripped in a heat wave. In the midst of this, the leaders of the Light are attempting to change the world. Whether it ends up being for the better or the worse, no one can know. But Anton is convinced that it must not come to pass….

Team ANTON!!!!!

It’s a gripping fantasy, in a very complex world. It’s compared to Rowling’s work, and justly so (although I don’t think there’s much of a case to be made for an attempt to ride on Rowling’s coattails – Night Watch was originally published in 1998, only a year after the release of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone). There are substantial differences, of course, making Night Watch a much more adult book than the Potter series. There are very few children, and the few that are there are not in very substantial roles. There’s far more drinking, smoking and sex in this, of course. But the world that Lukyanenko has created is every bit as deep and complex as the one Rowling has made. There are any number of roles that could be played, and an almost infinite number of situations that could be built on the fairly simple rules that are set up by the Light-Dark Treaty.

The biggest difference, of course, is in the complexity of the world. Rowling’s world is fairly definitive in its divisions between good and evil – there is good, there is evil, and there is no question of which is which. The evil characters are definitively evil, and the good characters are definitively good, and the reader doesn’t have to worry too much about who’s on which side, Snape notwithstanding.

The Others of Moscow, however, are not nearly so clear-cut. Yes, the Light is trying to do the work of the Good, to make the world a better place. But their machinations and their plots don’t always go as planned. See the Russian Revolution and World War II for examples why. They ignore the Law of Unintended Consequences and the horrors it can unleash. By trying to do Good, they unleash great evil upon the world.

He's just a big softie, really....

And how about the Dark? Yes, they’re populated by werewolves, witches and vampires, but they are advocates of utter and total freedom. They do not destroy for the sheer joy of destruction, but because they want to increase the personal freedom of the world. They’re not interested in making humanity “better,” or making a better world. They simply want to live in the world as it is, free from restraints – both internal and external.

While it may be pretty clear who is on the Light and Dark side, it’s not entirely clear who is doing Good or Evil at any given time. And, more importantly, it is almost impossible to know who is actually right.

It’s a great read – full of anguish and self-doubt and torture, like any good Russian novel should be. Anton knows that the Light doesn’t live up to the standards that it preaches, but he knows that he needs to be on the right side. He picks apart the intricate, decades-long plot of the Night Watch and very nearly figures out how to foil it. But even in revealing the truth, he does not manage to save the world from the doom of the Light.

Or does he?

We’ll have to read the next book and find out….

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“You accuse us of cruelty, and not entirely without reason, but what’s one child killed in a black mass compared with any fascist children’s concentration camp?”
– Zabulon, of the Day Watch, The Night Watch
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The Night Watch on Wikipedia
Sergei Lukyanenko on Wikipedia
Sergei Lukyanenko’s website (in English)
The Night Watch at Amazon.com

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Filed under ethics, fantasy, good and evil, horror, identity, made into movies, morality, philosophy, politics, Russia, Sergei Lukyanenko, short stories, society, USSR, vampires, werewolves, witches, wizardry

Review 123: Nineteen Eighty-Four

Nineteen Eighty-four by George Orwell

Gods, where do I even start with this?

As with To Kill a Mockingbird, I read this during Banned Books Week for two reasons. First, it’s on the ALA’s list of top banned or challenged books, and second because it’s really, really good.

As with all the books I read, there’s always a little part of me thinking about what I’m going to say about the book once I finally decide to write about it. Sometimes I start composing in my mind, coming up with the pithy words and phrases that have made me into the international book reviewing superstar that I am.

This time, however, I could barely concentrate for the cacophony in my head. There’s just so much going on in this novel that doing it any sort of justice would probably require writing a book that was longer than the book that it was analyzing. And as much as I love you guys, I’m not about to write a whole book about this. Probably because I reckon better minds than mine already have.

Art by Party9999999 on DeviantArt

Regardless, it’s hard to choose where exactly to go on this one. There are so many political, sociological, psychological and philosophical threads to pick up here that no matter what I write about, I’m pretty sure I’ll get responses about how I didn’t mention the solipistic nature of Ingsoc and its relationship to the philosophy behind modern cable news network reporting strategies. Don’t worry, guys – I got that one.

I suppose two big things came to mind while I was reading it this time, and the first of them was inspired by the previous book I read, To Kill a Mockingbird. In that book, Atticus Finch talks a lot about bravery. To teach his son about what it truly means to be brave, he gets him to take part in an old woman’s struggle to free herself of a morphine addiction before she dies – an excruciating process that is more likely to fail than to succeed. But she does it anyway. Atticus says to his son about bravery, “It’s when you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.”

The question in my mind, then, was “Is Winston Smith brave?”

I really want to put this on a t-shirt....

It’s a hard question to answer, really. By Atticus’ definition, you could say that he is. A member of the Outer Party that rules the superstate of Oceania, Winston Smith is a part of a greater machine. He works in the records department of the Ministry of Truth, diligently altering and “rectifying” the data of the past to bring it into alignment with what the Party wants to be true. His is a world where there is no such thing as objective truth – the truth is what the Party says it is.

A good member of the Party sublimates his will to that of the Party. What Big Brother wants, she wants. She has no love but love for the Party and no dreams but to do what the Party wants of her. A good Party member doesn’t have plans or hopes or dreams. He doesn’t ask questions or idly wonder if things could be different from what they are. A good Party member doesn’t think. He is born, lives, consumes, and dies.

Winston, however, cannot be a good Party member. He wonders why the world is the way it is, and begins down a road to assert his own identity as a human being. He knows full well that he will fail, that in the end he and the woman he loves will be delivered into the hands of the Thought Police, and he is appropriately terrified. But he goes through with it anyway. He keeps a diary of his thoughts and actively tries to join an underground movement that is determined to overthrow the Party and Big Brother. He declares himself willing to undertake acts of heinous treason, all in the name of resistance against the Party.

The new faces of the Party. DOUBLEPLUSGOOD!!

And in the end, he fails, just as he knew he would. So does this make Winston, a man who is so far in character from Atticus Finch, a brave person? Well, yes and no.

He does meet Atticus’ definition of bravery – persisting in what you believe to be right, even in the knowledge that you will probably fail. Winston puts his own life on the line multiple times, committing Thoughtcrime of the highest order. But is he doing it for some higher ideal, or is he doing it for more selfish reasons? Flashbacks to his younger days suggest that Winston Smith was an unrepentantly selfish child, who was willing to disregard the dire straits of his own mother and baby sister in order to get what he wanted. Could we not say that the adult Winston does the same? That he is more interested in freedom for himself than for others? Is his rebellion against Big Brother political or personal? He claims that he wants to see the world changed and freedom brought to all people, but how far can we trust a mind that’s been well-trained in Doublethink?

This, of course, gets right back to the Big Question of why people do the right thing, when it might be so much easier and profitable to do otherwise. Atticus Finch could have let Tom Robinson swing, thus saving himself and his family a whole lot of trouble, just as Winston could have just given up and emulated his neighbor, Parsons, becoming as good a Party member as possible. Neither man could do that, though, because is was not in their nature to do so. It was impossible for Winston to continue to live the way the Party wanted to and, given time, he may have been able to reach beyond meeting his own personal needs and seen to the needs of his greater community.

Unfortunately, we never get the chance to find out, as the Thought Police eventually get tired of watching him and take him in. To his credit, he does hold out to the last extreme before he betrays Julia in his heart, so perhaps he is brave after all.

How adorable....

The other thing that came to mind while I read was the modern use of the word “Orwellian,” and how it falls vastly short of what is depicted in this book. It gets thrown about any time a city puts up a few CCTV cameras downtown, or a business decides to put surveillance cameras in their store. It comes up when we put RFID chips in passports and credit cards, or when we think about how much data Google can hold about us. The word brings to mind a sense of constant surveillance, never being able to move or act without some government or corporation knowing what we’re doing.

While the concept of the two-way telescreens in this book certainly are a logical extension of surveillance culture, to call a customer database or red light cameras “Orwellian” is like calling a Bronze-age chariot a Ferrari. It betrays an incredible lack of understanding of what exactly is going on in the world that Orwell has built. We may be watched by these people, but in comparison to the average citizen of Oceanea – prole or Party member – we are still remarkably free.

Freedoms available to us. Not these people.

There are still freedoms available to us that people like Winston never had, and couldn’t understand even if they were offered. We can protest, we can voice our disagreements, we can channel our energies into whatever pursuit we choose, or not channel them at all. We have the freedom to decide who we want to be and how we want to live, at least within the limits of a well-ordered society. We do not live in daily terror that we might be abducted from our beds, our lives ended and our very existence erased from record and memory. Honestly, I think a few security cameras pale in comparison to the horror that is Oceanea and the world of Big Brother.

There is so much more to talk about with this book. I find Newspeak fascinating, and its foundations both amazing and terrifying. The idea that a concept can only truly exist if there’s a word for it brings to mind those “untranslatable” words you find in every language. For example, there’s no equivalent to the English “miss” in Japanese, as in “I miss my mother.” Does that mean that people in Japan are incapable of missing people? Of course not, but the underlying theory of Newspeak suggests otherwise. Once the party reduces the English language to a series of simple words with no nuance or subtlety of meaning, the idea goes, Thoughtcrime will be literally impossible. After all, how can one wish for freedom if the concept itself is impossible to articulate?

Then there’s the idea of the mutability of the past. The way the Party exerts its unbreakable control over the population is by virtue of the fact that they control all media – newspapers, radio, television, publishing of all sorts. If the Party wants to, say, claim that Big Brother invented the airplane, all they have to do is revise all relevant media to reflect their desired past, and then replace and destroy anything that disagrees with them. With no evidence that Big Brother didn’t invent the airplane, all that’s left is fallible human memory, and those who do think they remember the “right” version of the past will eventually die anyway. Whoever controls the present, the Party says, controls the future. And whoever controls the past controls the present. By remaking the past, the Party guarantees that they can never be gainsaid or proven to have erred in any way.

Even Big Brother would crumble before 4chan....

Fortunately for us, Big Brother never had the internet to contend with. As anyone who’s been online for a while knows, nothing on the internet ever goes away. Ever. The words of any leader or influential person are all there, in multiple copies, all of which can themselves be copied and distributed in mere seconds. While it is possible to fake a photograph, the awareness of that possibility, as well as the technology to suss out the fakes, are just as available to anyone who wants them. Even in cases where there are disputes about the past, or re-interpretations of past events, it is impossible for one version to systematically replace all others. While this sometimes results in competing versions of the past, the one with the most evidence tends to prevail.

Continuing in that vein, the understanding that the Party controls all information about itself leads to a very interesting question that’s not addressed in the book – is anything that is not directly witnessed by Winston Smith true? We are led to believe, for example, that there are three world powers – Oceanea, Eastasia and Eurasia – which are locked in a state of perpetual war. The nature of this war and how it serves the interests of these three nations is laid out in Goldstein’s Book, which is the text of the Revolution that Winston and Julia want to join. But here’s the thing – Goldstein’s Book is an admitted fiction, written by the Party as a kind of honeypot to bring suspects through the last stages of their Thoughtcrime. So we have no proof that the world of Nineteen Eighty-four actually is laid out the way it appears.

Is this the real world? GO TO ROOM 101, CITIZEN!

The Party could in fact dominate the world, using the pretext of war to keep the world’s citizens terrified, needy and compliant. On the other extreme, Oceanea could just be Britain, turned in on itself like some super-accelerated North Korea, its borders sealed and its citizens kept in utter ignorance of the world outside. We don’t know. We have no way of knowing, and neither do any of the characters in the book. Even the Inner Party members might not know the truth of their world, and wouldn’t care if they did.

One more thing, and I’ll keep this one short – Doublethink. The ability to hold two contradictory ideas in your mind, believing in both of them simultaneously and yet being unaware that there’s any conflict at all. Knowing, for example, that last week chocolate rations were at thirty grams, and at the same time knowing that this week they had been raised to twenty. All I can say here is to look at the health care debate in the United States. Here’s a fun game: see how often someone says, “We have the best health care in the world,” and then see how long it takes before they tell us that health care in the United States is irrevocably broken. Your average politician and pundit does this kind of thing all the time and, in accordance with the basic principles of Doublethink (also known as Reality Control), they immediately forget that they had done it.

No! Not Obamacare! Do it to Julia! DO IT TO JULIA!!! (Art by Scott Sullivan on Flickr)

This game is much easier if you watch Glenn Beck for half an hour. You’ll be missed, Glenn.

There is just so much to be gleaned from this book. Probably the most important is this – the world depicted in Nineteen Eighty-four is certainly not an impossible one, but it is unlikely. The people of that world allowed the Party to take over for them in a time of crisis, and in that sense this book is a warning to us all. It is a warning to keep the power that we have, and to resist the temptation to let a government decide who we should be.

——————————————-
“I understand HOW: I do not understand WHY.
Winston Smith, Nineteen Eighty-four

George Orwell on Wikipedia
Nineteen Eighty-Four on Wikipedia
Online comic adaptation
Nineteen Eighty-Four on Amazon.com

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Filed under classics, dystopia, ethics, existentialism, fiction, futurism, George Orwell, language, made into movies, morality, philosophy, politics, psychology, totalitarianism, truth

Lost in the Stacks 4: Writers and Readers

With the debut of HBO’s “A Game of Thrones” miniseries and a new article in The New Yorker, the strange story of George R. R. Martin and his fans has been on my mind. So, in this episode of Lost in the Stacks, we examine the weird, often dangerously codependent relationship between the Writer and the Readers.

What does the writer owe to his or her readers, if anything? What can the readers honestly expect of their writer? What promises, implicit or explicit, have been made, and what happens when they’re broken?

Join me for an interesting conversation, and let me know what you think!

George R. R. Martin’s homepage
Finish the Book, George
Is Winter Coming?

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Filed under analysis, criticism, ethics, fans, fiction, George R. R. Martin, Lost in the Stacks, morality, reading, writing