Stephen W. Browne Rants and Raves

December 24, 2017

Merry Christmas to you all

Filed under: Literature,Personal — Stephen W. Browne @ 5:17 am

Merry Christmas everyone, and a Happy New Year.
There have been some big changes lately, and I expect getting more active on this blog will be one of them soon.
I have an ebook published, a collection of my newspaper columns titled “The View from Flyover Country: A Rural Columnist Looks at Life.” It’s not my first book but it’s my first venture into ebook publishing.
And if you look on my author’s page on Amazon you’ll also see an anthology I contributed to, edited with commentary by my friend Marc MacYoung, titled “Beyond the Picket Fence: Life Outside the Middle-Class Bubble.”
From the book description:

“Rules, traditions of the past, and assumptions… all have been swept away by rapid social change. Instead of freeing people this has left us stressed, confused, unprepared, and unable to navigate different environments and situations that can be more than just hostile. Environments outside suburbia can become dangerous — especially for teens and young adults.

‘Beyond the Picket Fence’ isn’t a self-defense book, but it is very much about what will get you into trouble with people.”

In planning, to get my book on linguistic humor out. Most of it was written years ago when I was teaching English in Eastern Europe. I wrote it to explain linguistically dependent jokes in English. That is, the kind of jokes that can’t be translated, only explained, because they use a feature of the language for humorous effect such as puns, play on worlds, Spoonerisms, malapropisms, etc.
I also have a theory of humor on why we find such jokes funny.
Later. For now I’d like to wish you all a Merry Christmas and share one of my favorite Christmas poems, “Eddi’s Service” by Rudyard Kipling. I’ve presented it on my Youtube vlog, linked in the title:

Eddi’s Service
(AD 687)

EDDI, priest of St. Wilfrid
In his chapel at Manhood End,
Ordered a midnight service
For such as cared to attend.

But the Saxons were keeping Christmas,
And the night was stormy as well.
Nobody came to service,
Though Eddi rang the bell.

‘Wicked weather for walking,’
Said Eddi of Manhood End.
‘But I must go on with the service
For such as care to attend.

The altar-lamps were lighted, –
An old marsh-donkey came,
Bold as a guest invited,
And stared at the guttering flame.

The storm beat on at the windows,
The water splashed on the floor,
And a wet, yoke-weary bullock
Pushed in through the open door.

‘How do I know what is greatest,
How do I know what is least?
That is My Father’s business,’
Said Eddi, Wilfrid’s priest.

‘But – three are gathered together –
Listen to me and attend.
I bring good news, my brethren!’
Said Eddi of Manhood End.

And he told the Ox of a Manger
And a Stall in Bethlehem,
And he spoke to the Ass of a Rider,
That rode to Jerusalem.

They steamed and dripped in the chancel,
They listened and never stirred,
While, just as though they were Bishops,
Eddi preached them The Word,

Till the gale blew off on the marshes
And the windows showed the day,
And the Ox and the Ass together
Wheeled and clattered away.

And when the Saxons mocked him,
Said Eddi of Manhood End,
‘I dare not shut His chapel
On such as care to attend.’

September 25, 2014

What I’m learning about writing

Filed under: Literature,On Thinking,Personal — Stephen W. Browne @ 1:04 pm

I have been a professional writer, meaning I get paid for what I write, for going on two decades now. I’ve been making a full-time living at it for six years now.

I started with five goals as a writer:
1) Write regularly.
2) Publish what I write.
3) Get paid for what I write.
4) Make a living writing.
5) Make a lot of money writing.

I like to say I’m on stage four. However each stage is an order of magnitude more difficult than the last, so the jump from four to five…

When I started getting paid for writing advertorials for the English-language press in Poland, I looked on it as paid practice.

When I became a working journalist it imposed a certain kind of structure on my writing: more terse than my usual wont, and organized in the “inverted pyramid” style. It’s not quite how I like to do essays, and I think of myself as an essayist above all, but it’s great discipline.

Opinion columns are great practice too. You have to make your point within a certain word limit, which really makes you think about how to organize your thoughts and what is the minimum necessary to leave in to support your point.

I’ve also written quite a few movie/TV reviews and that is a whole lot of fun.

Now I’ve taken off six months from work to write a book, maybe two short books, and it’s a whole different ball game.

I’ve actually written two books already. One was a book of vocabulary-building essays for English students and teachers who are non-native speakers.

The other was a book on linguistic humor for the same audience. Meaning jokes that cannot be translated because they use a feature of the language, lexical or phonetic, for humorous effect: puns, play on words, spoonerisms, accent and dialect jokes, etc.

Now I’m working on a book with some of my thoughts on politics, “The Progressive Mind and Other Essays.”

Like my other books it’s partly a collection of essays, revised and expanded, and partly new material written to extend my original insight and bring it all together.

A lot of the work so far has been just copying and pasting the essays, writing transitions and editing. And boy has there been a lot of editing!

I have had to ruthlessly prune phrases down to single words or eliminate them entirely. I constantly ask myself, “Does this support the point or did you just include that because you thought it was interesting?”

And I have to organize thoughts I’ve had that previously just rumbled around in my brain.

It’s a challenge for sure, and win, lose, or draw it’ll make a better writer out of me.

But what’s really tough is the self-doubt and failure of nerve that threatens to overwhelm sometimes.

That nagging little voice that asks, “Is this really good? Is anybody ever going to find this insight as fascinating as you do? Have you got it in you to finish this?”

I’m discovering that writing can be an act of courage as much as discipline.

July 10, 2010


Filed under: Culture,Literature,Movies — Stephen W. Browne @ 9:35 am

My wife rented ‘New Moon’ prepartory to seeing ‘Eclipse’ on her next girl’s night out. She’d seen ‘Twilight’ in the theater and wanted to be up to speed.

I stayed up and watched it because I hadn’t seen any of the movies or read the books and felt I was missing a big piece of popular culture.

Afterwards I sat up for a few more minutes trying to find the words to express my impression of the flick.

“Cheesy melodrama,” that’s it.

At one point my wife pointed out that Bela (when trying to look like her soul is tormented) always seems to looks like she’s about to barf. Then sure enough, Bella got out of her pickup and it looked like she was going to bend over and heave.

But it’s not bad cheesy melodrama. I didn’t hate myself for wasting precious hours of my remaining lifespan, nor foresee the End of Civilization as We Know It in the popularity of the series. If anything, I curse myself for not sitting down at the computer and turning out some drivel of like kind to free my family from financial worries.

Still, as a jackleg anthropologist and amateur folklorist, it bothers me a little that the vampire myth has been so, so… well for lack of a better word, domesticated.

When I was a kid I went to see the misnamed ‘Brides of Dracula’ (the Count is not in the flick, the vampire is one Baron Mienster) with Peter Cushing as Dr. Van Helsing.

I think I spent half the movie in the lobby cowering by the popcorn machine.

The Twilight series is all about teen angst and finding True Love. I appreciate there is a longing for masculine chivalry expressed therein. The desire for a male who experiences the volcanic lusts of hormone-driven teenagers, but nonetheless disciplines himself our of respect for his inamorata.

And of course, the conflation of sex and death is very Freudian. (“I believe in sex and death. The difference is, after death you’re not nauseous.” – Woody Allen. Sorry.)

The trend of “sexy Dracula” started with Frank Langela’s 1979 version I think. With Laurence Olivier as Van Helsing, not too shabby. I remember seeing young girls leaving the theater, and you could just tell they’d willingly roll down their turtlenecks for him.

Langella had the huevos to reinterpret some of Bela Lugosi’s classic lines: “I never drink – wine,” and, “There are worse things than death.” Langella delivered them without the pause and sardonic smile in the first, or the slow, heavy intonation in the second.” I.e. he didn’t overact.

Fred Saberhagen started the Dracula-as-misunderstood-good-guy genre in ‘The Dracula Tapes’ and sequels two years before Anne Rice published ‘Interview with the Vampire.’

Saberhagen was harmless fun. Dracula explaining that “sadistic psychopath” Van Helsing was killing Lucy Westenra attempting to cure her of vampirism, by giving her transfusions – a full four years before Landsteiner discovered blood types, is a hoot!

And now that you mention it, making Lucy’s fiancee cut her head off is definitely sick, sick, sick.

Then he made Dracula Sherlock Holmes’ uncle or cousin or something, pointing out the startling similarities in their appearance as recounted by Bram Stoker and Conan Doyle. Double hoot!

Anne Rice’s work is sinister enough that I wouldn’t be at all surprised if she rose from the grave to prey upon the living.

Rice very perceptively observed, “The serial killer is the vampire of the modern world.”

The bitch then sold us to the serial killers. Over and over she makes the victims long to be murdered. Major creepy. The last Rice vampire book I read made me curse, “I could have bought a decent Dean Koontz thriller instead!”

(Which reminds me, I’ve got to dust off my literary comparison of Rice and Koontz’s views of evil.)

But back to traditional folklore – a vampire is not Rice’s “dark, Byronic figure” but an animated corpse! It’s not at all certain it’s really the person who died in that body. Many traditions suggest it’s a demon who possesses and reanimates the corpse.

And they’ve got halitosis to boot!

A decent read that stays within the evil vampire genre is F. Paul Wilson’s ‘Midnight Mass.’

Wilson builds upon Richard Matheson’s notion (in ‘I am Legend’) of vampirism as a plague that threatens to overwhelm the earth. Wilson though, keeps vampires at least semi-suprenatural: cross and holy water allergy, etc.

Matheson might have originated the notion of vampirisim as a virus, later used in the Blade movie series. I have no idea if the theory that vampire legends were inspired by rabies victims came before or after his novel.

The best euhemerized vampire story I’ve ever encountered is George R.R. Martin’s ‘Fevre Dream.’ Martin (whose other accomplishments include creating the cult series ‘Beauty and the Beast’) combines vampires with a Mississippi river boat story!

That was actually foreshadowed by Lon Chaney’s southern-gothic ‘Son of Dracula’ set in the swamps of the Deep South.

Martin’s vampires are entirely natural phenomena. They are another species which prey upon humans. Once a month or thereabouts, they must have human blood, but can subsist on normal food all the rest of the time. They are extremely long-lived and allergic to sunlight, but crosses, garlic, mirrors, running water, etc are just superstition.

And, you can’t become a vampire. Vampires are born to vampire mothers and fathers just like any other species.

The novel concerns a vampire hero who has invented a substitute for human blood that can free vampires from their need to murder humans. Recommended.

For those who like to keep supernaturalism in the genre, I’d recommend John Steakley’s ‘Vampire$.” This was made a not-bad-but-not-great movie, ‘John Carpenter’s Vampires.’ There was a sequel, ‘Vampires – Los Muertos,’ which he didn’t write.

Steakley commented that a last-minute budget slash made them rewrite the movie with much of his dialog and none of his plot.

I heard Steakley read from the book at a NOSFA (Norman Oklahoma Science Fiction Association) meeting, and it was electrifying. I’ve been unable to find out what’s happened to him. The IMDB lists him as an actor in a movie called ‘Playing Dead’ in 2000.

Aside from one other SF book ‘Armor,’ I haven’t seen a thing by him, which is a pity – he gave us some of the best advice for aspiring writers I’ve ever heard.

So what’s it all mean? Stay tuned.

August 6, 2009


Filed under: Literature,Politics — Stephen W. Browne @ 5:07 pm

Note: This appeared as a weekend op-ed in my newspaper. I’ve used the Dane-geld trope before, in an email after the Madrid bombings, and it went viral. So sue me, it’s a damn good poem and expresses an Eternal Truth.

Dane-geld (A.D. 980-1016)

It is always a temptation to an armed and agile nation
To call upon a neighbor and to say: —
“We invaded you last night–we are quite prepared to fight,
Unless you pay us cash to go away.”

And that is called asking for Dane-geld,
And the people who ask it explain
That you’ve only to pay ’em the Dane-geld
And then you’ll get rid of the Dane!

– Rudyard Kipling

Dane-geld (Dane-gold): A tax raised by Anglo-Saxon kingdoms to pay off Viking raiders in return for not ravaging their lands.

A while ago in these pages I explained why I thought the U.S. government probably couldn’t do anything for Roxanne Saberi, then imprisoned on espionage charges in Iran.

In hindsight, it seems I overlooked one possibility – they could buy her out.

And it appears they have. The price was the release of the “Irbil five” Iranian terrorists captured in Iraq, where they specialized in deploying anti-armor explosives that killed hundreds of Americans. There may have been other concessions we don’t know about yet.

This Tuesday I received a message from the Society of Professional Journalists that American journalists Euna Lee and Laura Ling had been released by the North Korean government after being imprisoned for 140 days and sentenced to 12 years hard labor – which in North Korea essentially means a sentence of death by prolonged torture.

The release stated, “Former President Bill Clinton arrived in North Korea today, Tuesday, Aug. 4, to negotiate the release of Lee and Ling, who had been imprisoned since March. North Korea’s… leader Kim Jong II pardoned and ordered the release of the journalists after meeting with Clinton for negotiations.”

With apologies to the SPJ, this is false and misleading on one essential point. President Clinton did not go for “negotiations,” the outcome was established before he set foot on the plane. He was there to pay a ransom: legitimacy for North Korea, tremendous “face” for Kim Jong Il, and most certainly more we don’t know about yet.

It is always a temptation for a rich and lazy nation,
To puff and look important and to say: —
“Though we know we should defeat you, we have not the time to meet you.
We will therefore pay you cash to go away.”

And that is called paying the Dane-geld;
But we’ve proved it again and again,
That if once you have paid him the Dane-geld
You never get rid of the Dane.

This is how small but unspeakably brutal countries hold rich and powerful nations to ransom. North Korea’s leaders were indifferent to the death by starvation of an estimated 300,000 to 800,000 people a year for three years in the recent, preventable famine.

We care deeply as a nation about the fate of only two of our own, in a deeply personal way. I could feel the anguish of their husbands, and my heart nearly broke to see Lee’s little girl run to hug Mommy when she got off the plane. Like everyone else in the country, I breathed a sigh of relief when we got these two back safely.

But let’s not fool ourselves, there is a price for this. One we’re all going to pay eventually. North Korea has demonstrated again they can get big concessions for a trivial cost. The Obama administration calls it “engagement.” Violence professionals call it “rewarding bad behavior.”

Somewhere down the road, we’re going to re-learn what Kipling tried to tell us a long time ago.

It is wrong to put temptation in the path of any nation,
For fear they should succumb and go astray;
So when you are requested to pay up or be molested,
You will find it better policy to say: —

“We never pay any-one Dane-geld,
No matter how trifling the cost;
For the end of that game is oppression and shame,
And the nation that pays it is lost!”

September 27, 2008

"Sex in the City" and Auntie Mame

Filed under: Literature,Movies,Relationships — Stephen W. Browne @ 3:02 pm

We watched the movie “Sex in the City” last night, from Netflix.

My wife has followed the series throughout, and I’ve watched it from time to time with her to fill me in on the backstory.

I’m not outraged by it, as some conservatives are. But by and large, I just don’t feel any connection to these people and their problems, trials and tribulations. They just don’t seem like my kind of people, living the kind of life me and my friends live.

Of course, that’s precisely the attraction the series must have had for some folks. Those of us who don’t have the finances covered to the point they don’t have to worry about paying for those up-scale New York apartments and lunches in tony restaurants, can concentrate on relationship issues to the exclusion of all else, and drop everything to get together with their buds whenever.

Would be nice if we could all be secure enough to concentrate on the art of living.

So at the end, Carrie marries Mr. Big. She’s 40, and you don’t get the idea they’ll have children, and that’s probably a good thing. Carrie is a perfectly sweet honorary aunt to Charlotte’s lovely adopted Chinese daughter, which is a part-time job. “Parent” is not something you can switch on and off, and frankly, Carrie and Big stike me as being a bit too self-absorbed to make room in their life for kids.

Charlotte is happily married and finally gets pregnant after being an adoptive mother for five years.

I have got to mention that adoption as a “priming the pump” phenomenon is well-known, though little understood, but many adoption agencies specifically screen childless couples who they think are motivated by this.

Miranda and Steve have a bad patch when Steve, frustrated by lack of noogie, confesses to a one-night stand.

Even Dear Abbie used to say, if you slip, don’t make that mistake again, bury it quietly and don’t burden your partner with your guilt.

Miranda puts him through hell for six months before she takes him back. Serves him right perhaps – but there’s a kid involved who has to go through this too, and there is zero time in the movie devoted to his perspective.

Smoking Samantha finds that monogamy is not for her, and dumps the much younger hunk who stuck with her through her chemo.

“You just compared him to chemo!” Charlotte observes.

Samantha frankly confesses that she’s much more into “me”, than “us.”

Good for Samantha, at least she didn’t pretend. Some women should not try to settle down, and men should not try to domesticate such.

Of course, she’s 50, and though fabulous still, how long is that going to last? Samantha is going to grow old very lonely, one suspects. Though perhaps as another honorary aunt to Charlotte’s (now) two girls, she’ll be a super and much-adored source of worldly wisdom for them as they grow into young women.

How Charlotte is going to feel about this when they start to bloom…

At any rate, I rather enjoyed the movie as light entertainment. Something was nagging at my memory though, and I only realized what this morning.

It was Auntie Mame.

Auntie Mame was a 1955 novel by Patrick Dennis. It was fiction, though strongly based on his freewheeling aunt Marion Tanner.

It was made into a movie with Rosalind Russel in 1958, then into a Broadway musical with a fabulous score, and filmed with Lucille Ball in 1974.

Camille Paglia said of it, “Auntie Mame is the American Alice in Wonderland. It is also, incidentally, one of the most important books in my life. Its witty Wildean phrases ring in my mind, and its flamboyant characters still enamor me. Like Tennessee Williams, Patrick Dennis caught the boldness, vitality, and iridescent theatricality of modern American personality. In Mame’s mercurial metamorphoses we see American optimism and self-invention writ large.”

That indeed we do. Some years back I got the chance to read it, and it’s what she said alright. There is real affection in it for the unconventional auntie who eats life like there was no tomorrow.

What Camille doesn’t seem to see however, is there’s a real pissed-off kid in the story too.

Auntie Mame didn’t choose to have kids, but got two dumped on her by the death of her brother. And while she’s often a fun aunt, she’s also an irresponsible flibertygibbet who just can’t seem to freakin’ grow up when that awsome responsibility gets dumped in her lap.

And incidentally, I’ve read that the real Marion Tanner did not like her fictional counterpart one bit.

I wonder, is this America? Bold, optimistic, self-inventing – and not really very responsible about our children’s future?

I mean hey, what did future generations ever do for us?

July 7, 2007

7/7/7 Happy 100th Bob

Filed under: Book reviews,Literature — Stephen W. Browne @ 3:04 pm

Today, Saturday 7/7/7 is the hundredth anniversary of SF author Robert Anson Heinlein’s birth.

It’s actually difficult to write anything about Heinlein that wouldn’t lengthen into a book by way of digressions, qualifications and defenses against some of the more egregiously idiotic criticisms he’s been subjected to*. He led a long and interesting life, absorbed with the exploration of ideas.

Man of contradictions, libertine and libertarian. Simultaneously condemned as a “militarist” and “facist”, mostly for Starship Troopers**, he also wrote the hippy free-love counter-culture Bible Stranger in a Strange Land.

Apostle of reason and the scientific method, he also apparently believed in reincarnation and dabbled in fringe science such as Korzybski’s General Semantics and was briefly enamored of the pseudo-science of Dianetics.

Heinlein was a ardent patriot, strong supporter of the military, and a just as passionate anti-authoritarian. One of the few absolute dogmatic positions he took was an unbending opposition to conscription in any form. He once wrote that a society that needed to resort to conscription to save itself was already lost and did not deserve to survive.

Reading Heinlein was one of the things that got me through childhood. (The other being Kipling’s poetry and stories – people who like the one will almost certainly like the other.) His specialty in the novels for juveniles he penned for Charles Scribner & Sons was the coming-of-age story.

Heinlein’s prose and story tellling has been condemned by literary types, but novels published under his own name – even some pretty bad ones (Rocket Ship Galileo, I Will Fear No Evil) have never gone out of print since they first saw the light of day.

Heinlein tossed off ideas like sparks from a blacksmith’s hammer. The term Waldo (remote-control robot arms for handling dangerous materials) came from a story of the same name. During a period of convalescence from his chronic health problems, he invented the idea of the waterbed. The first man to build and market them sent him one – which he never assembled.

The acronym he coined in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress TANSTAAFL (“There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch”) has been used in libertarian circles as a summation of the essence of free market economics.

But Heinlein makes even libertarians uncomfortable, because though passionately committed to freedom, he was equally committed to the ideal of duty. They should look again. “Never confuse duty with anything you owe anyone else. Duty is something you owe only to yourself.”

I reformulated this as a guide for my own conduct: “Duty is the price you must pay for the privilege of thinking of yourself as the kind of person you wish to be” i.e. if you wish to think of yourself as brave, you must act with courage when the occasion demands.

Heinlein makes doctrinaire feminists uncomfortable – this in spite of, or perhaps because of the fact that every one of his female characters without exception is strong-willed, intelligent, competent and courageous.

My brother once mentioned to me that a female friend of his loathes Heinlein. “Why?” I asked. “She said something about how he shows women who like to have babies.” Oh whatever will this poor old world be FORCED to endure next!

Heinlein is the man who defined love: “Love is when another’s happiness is essential to your own” and a short elaboration, “Love is what goes on when you’re not horney.”

Has love every been so succinctly defined in any language?

In The Moon is a Harsh Mistress Heinlein tossed off in one paragraph the only original constitutional idea since, well perhaps since the Constitution. The idea (which I call Petition Proportional Representation) was that almost everybody could have the representative of his choice if, instead of a winner-take-all election in a geographic area, a candidate would gather petition signatures until a he/she gathered a certain minimum x. One x signatures got you a seat and one vote in the representative body. Two x got you a seat and two votes, etc.

I will confess that my favorite Heinlein novels are still the juveniles he wrote under contract for Scribner’s, plus Starship Troopers, which they rejected. Citizen of the Galaxy still moves me to tears at the end, “To be willing to live a slave, or to die, that freedom might live.”

His later works were more experimental and seem to miss as much as they hit. However, I’m willing to entertain the notion that Heinlien was ahead of his time and we just haven’t gotten it yet.

Heinlein’s effect on our culture is something that social scientists will be trying to evaluate for centuries to come – once they get that a popular writer of genre fiction had a greater effect than probably any academic of this century. I read him and my children will – and perhaps theirs as well.

* Spider Robinson’s essay ‘Rah, rah RAH’ is the best point-by-point “defense of a man who doesn’t need it”.

** Those offended by Heinlein’s notion that the privilege of voting should be restricted to those who accept some responsibility for supporting and defending society (via military service among other ways) have never to my knowledge, realized that this was institutionalized in some of the states at the beginning of our history. Voting qualifications included paying taxes on a freehold of a certain value – or by being registered for the militia.

Nor do critics ever seem to note that Federal Service in Starship Troopers was completely voluntary and a soldier could resign at any time up to the start of a battle.

May 12, 2007

At the Core

Filed under: Book reviews,Ethics,Literature,Politics,War — Stephen W. Browne @ 2:33 pm

Issues of courage and cowardice have been on my mind a lot lately. In my reviews of ‘300’ I mentioned that the disturbing thing about the bad reviews I’ve read isn’t that they didn’t like it, it’s definitely not to everyone’s taste, but that much of them seemed to be part of a reflexive dislike of any portrayal of physical courage.

In my post ‘Virginia’, I mentioned that the three responses to deadly danger in rough order of desirability are, 1) avoid it, 2) successfully run away from it, and 3) successfully fight back against it.

Any competent and ethical martial arts instructor knows that one of the difficult tasks of instructing boys and young men, is teaching when and how to escape and evade aggressors. Testosterone overload often makes men want to fight when they should run, or keep pounding on a downed foe longer than the law considers justified. (You could call that “losing by winning”, when you consider the potential criminal charges and/or lawsuits.)

One thing I like to do is to pose the question, “What is the highest military command skill?” I didn’t know the answer myself until it was pointed out to me.

Experts consider the highest command skill to be the ability to lead a retreat in good order.

Think about that for a minute. When in an untenable position, you may have to fall back to a one you are better able to defend. If it has to be done in the face of the enemy, it can all too easily turn into a rout – and then you’re screwed.

Circumstances alter cases of course. For a Greek hoplite, when the day was clearly lost he could possibly save his life by abandoning his heavy armor and running. (“He who fights and runs away… etc.) But if just one man did it too soon he could cause the collapse of the line. (Hence the Spartan expression, “Come back with your shield or on it.”) For a medieval pikeman facing cavalry, dropping his pike and running meant that the cavalry would likely run him down and take him from behind.

The point of all this is that running is not necessarily evidence of cowardice – it all depends on circumstances.

Americans proud of our preeminent position of power in the world, might do well to remember from time to time that our nation was populated largely by people who successfully used the strategy of running away.

Now if you’ll bear with me a moment (I promise, it’s actually heading for a point), I’d like to tell you about a science fiction story I read when I was in high school, lo these many years ago.

“At the Core” by Larry Niven, was part of his Known Space universe, set in the far future and involving his character Beowulf Schaeffer.

Beowulf Schaeffer is hired for a deep space exploration mission by the Puppeteers, an alien race described as looking like “a three-legged centaur with two Cecil the Seasick Sea Serpent puppets for heads.”

Puppeteers have a certain outstanding characteristic – they are cowards. All of them.

Puppeteers have an inborn mortal fear of, basically everything even remotely dangerous. So for dangerous tasks such as exploration they hire humans, whom they regard as crazy – but lucky. (A brave Puppeteer is by definition psychotic.)

They hire Beowulf Schaeffer to pilot a new kind of spaceship to the galactic core and report back what he finds.

What he finds when he gets there is that the galactic core has exploded in a chain of supernovas. In 50,000 years the blast wave and radiation is going to reach our galactic neighborhood, rendering it uninhabitable. He reports this and returns.

When he gets back to Known Space, he finds that all of the Puppeteers have fled the Galaxy.

Let’s break here and ask yourself what you’d do if your knew for certain that an unavoidable danger was going to wipe out all life on Earth and all of the nearer solar systems – in 50,000 years? Would you even lose any sleep over it?

Didn’t think so, neither would I.

Beowulf Schaeffer muses on this and comes to the same conclusion. We’d do nothing until the sky started to glow.

He thinks further on it. No Puppeteer ever pretended danger didn’t exist. He may have been looking for the best place to run, but he would never deny the necessity for running.

He concludes, “Maybe it’s humans who are cowards, at the Core.”

(Nice play on words there.)

To belabor the point just a little, it’s not necessarily cowardly to run from danger. As I said, it depends on the circumstances. Sometimes running can save your life, sometimes it gets you killed – or leaves those you love unprotected.

But to deny that danger exists?

I’ll deal more with this later.

November 19, 2006

Religions that never were – but might be

Filed under: Book reviews,Literature,Martial arts,Philosophy — Stephen W. Browne @ 3:01 pm

Hymn to Mithras, sung by the XXX Legion stationed at the Wall (Hadrian’s) north of Eboracum (modern York).

Mithras, God of the Morning, our trumpets waken the wall!
Rome is above the Nations, but Thou art over all,
Now as the names are answered, and the guard is marched away,
Mithras, also a soldier, give us strength for the day!

Mithras, God of the Noontide, the heather swims in the heat,
Our helmets scorch our foreheads; our sandals burn our feet,
Now in the ungirt hour; now lest we blink and drowse,
Mithras, also a soldier, keep us true to our vows!

Mithras, God of the Sunset, low on the Western main,
Thou descending immortal, immortal to rise again!
Now as the watch is ended, now as the wine is drawn
Mithras also a soldier, keep us pure till the dawn!

Mithras, God of the Midnight, here where the Great Bull dies,
Look on thy children in darkness. Oh take our sacrifice!
Many roads Thou has fashioned: all of them lead to the Light,
Mithras, also a soldier, teach us to die aright!

I don’t know about you, but that hymn to an extinct religion always sends chills down my spine. The worship of the solar deity Mithras, the “soldiers’ god”, was once the most serious rival to Christianity. The Christians ultimately co-opted several features from it, such as December 25 as the birth date of the Savior (originally the winter solstice before calendar reforms altered the relationship with the seasons) and Sunday as the Sabbath, rather than the original Jewish Sabbath of sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.

Mithraism lost out to Christianity, probably for a couple of reasons. One was that the Mithraic mysteries were reserved for men. This resulted in Roman households where the women were Christians and the men Mithraists. When the primary caregivers are of one faith, you can pretty much guess which is going to win out in the long run.

Another was that the Mithraism insisted on a high moral standard for candidates for admission – a Christian bishop once bitterly remarked that, “The Devil shames us with the quality of his adherents.” The Christians would take you as you were and work on upgrading your morals. Nonetheless there is something very compelling in that vision of Roman legionaries singing to their god, asking for strength to fulfill their duty of guarding the civilized lands against the northern savages (i.e. my ancestors) and a poignancy that comes from the knowledge that eventually their strength failed and they were overwhelmed.

Now here’s the rub, very little is known about Mithraism, that hymn was written by Rudyard Kipling as part of his ‘History of England’ series.

Mankind invents new religions, and variations on old ones all the time, and existing religions have schisms like cats have kittens. We are a religious animal, and there’s no escaping that. Religion is at least as old as mankind and I don’t see humans becoming indifferent to religion in the foreseeable future.

But what is it going to look like? That I wouldn’t take any bets on.

As Kipling invented a hymn for a religion in the past, many science fiction writers have invented religions for the future. One, L. Ron Hubbard actually got serious about it and founded Scientology. Other SciFi writers have done far better in my opinion, but didn’t go so far as to take their creations seriously enough to proselytize for them.

Robert Silverberg took the idea of a “religion of science” and in my humble opinion, did a more appealing job of it in his novel ‘To Open the Sky’. He postulated a religion which worshipped the mysteries of “the quantum, and the holy angstrom” in the Litany of the Wavelengths and sought immortality through scientific research rather than life-after-death.

Poul Anderson created at least two religions. In novels such as ‘The People of the Wind’ he created a race of intelligent birds, the Ythrians (as if humans had descended from hawks rather than primates). The deity of their New Religion was called God the Hunter.

So what kind of religion would a race of flying hunters create? Their god is a hunter – and we, all living beings, are his prey. We exist to give honor to god. God loves us, the way a hunter would love the prey in his sights. Our obligation is to fight as hard as we can to live as long as we can, so that god has honor from us.

Sound chilling? Yet Anderson wrote a very moving eulogy for this religion, “High you flew on many winds, until at last God stooped on you in your pride. Long you fought Him and well, and from you He has honor. Go now. Be wind, be ash, be water. Be always remembered.”

In the same future history series he invented, or adapted, the religion he called Cosmenosism (See: The Day of Their Return). Some variation of this actually seems to be emerging among people who can’t buy into faith-based supernaturalism, but still feel the religious impulse strongly.

The premise here goes something like, rationalist attempts at a definition of God often look a lot like a self-aware universe. So without supernaturalism, how does a universe become self-aware? By evolving life and intelligence. Matter organizing itself until one day a living being looks around as says, “I exist!” Intelligent beings further evolve, naturally and by developing their science and technology until they are so powerful and wise that they are pretty much indistinguishable from what we’d call gods.

This is cool, because it gives the atheists a way to have God too. Many variations are possible. Have other races made the journey to transcendence before us? That is, is God waiting for us to join him, and maybe lending a helping hand? Or do we become God far in the future, but are able to reach back in time to help ourselves up? Are we in fact going to become immortal?

Scientist Frank Tipler posits a future where our supercomputers will give us immortality by recreating in emulations, not only all human being who ever lived, but all human being who ever could have lived. Others speculate that if the universe is an expanding and contracting one, at the point where it starts to contract, all information will become available to us, including the information that went into making each and every one of us.

It’s interesting to note that something like a variation of Cosmenosism is the core theology of Mormonism. Other variations look something like the Hindu belief in cycles of creation.

What might be considered another variation is the crypto-Buddhist philosophy of Viriditas in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy: Red Mars, Green Mars and Blue Mars. The core principle here is that life and living worlds are so rare and precious, that our duty as sentient beings is to terraform and bring life to as much of the universe as we can, throughout our future existence as a race.

But what if it’s all a sham? What if belief is something we invent to hide from ourselves the fact that the universe is indifferent to us and someday we’re all going to die and be – nothing. George R. R. Martin invented the Liars, in his short story ‘The Way of Cross and Dragon’.

In this story, an Inquisitor for a far-future Roman Catholic church charged with the duty of fighting heresy, meets a heretic who tells him, “I’m a Liar.” “I know you’re a liar” he replies. “No, you don’t understand, I’m a Liar.”

The heretic tells him that he is a member of an underground sect called the Liars. They believe that there is no God and no afterlife, but that the vast majority of humans can’t live with that knowledge – so throughout the ages they invent comforting religions, creating mythologies tailored to the specific cultural needs of each time and place. The Inquisitor vanquishes the new heresy but is left with nagging doubts about his own faith. In the end he requests to be relieved of his duties because he has lost his faith. His superior coldly informs him that faith is not necessary for him to fulfill his duty…

John Maddox Roberts also saw the Roman Catholic church continuing into the far future, in his delightful novel ‘Cestus Dei’, which is Latin for “The brass knuckles of God”. (The Cestus was a kind of boxing handwrap, often with shot or spikes attached, used by a class of gladiators called pugilists or cestiarii.)

Cestus Dei is an order of Jesuit martial artists. At one point a potential convert tells a member of the order that understanding is easier for him because he grew up in the Faith. “But I didn’t” the Jesuit tells him. He informs the young man that he grew up on a planet settled by Hindus, and was a worshipper of the goddess Kali, of a sect that strangled men as an act of religious devotion – Thugee! (The cult of the stranglers in India, origin of the English word ‘thug’.)

He tells the young man that he found the faith when he saw a Christian missionary on the street of his city and, thinking that the killing of an infidel would be pleasing to his goddess, followed him with his silk rumal (scarf) with the intention of strangling him. “I woke up in the hospital a week later. As my bones healed, the Jesuit visited me every day and explained to me the truth of the Faith.”

It’s a hoot!

Verily, many and marvelous are the ways of God and Man.

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