Monday, December 21, 2020

Masks & Hoods on the Cover of Weird Tales

I am out of time in this terrible year of 2020. My series on Utopia and Dystopia in Weird Tales will have to wait until after the new year arrives. In the meantime, I offer this entry in another of my series, this one on Weird Tales cover themes. I'll have to make it fast and without providing credits. I should let you know that these are covers showing masks or hoods that obscure at least part of the wearer's face. Hoods and robes that allow us to see his face are out.

My reason for making this entry and showing these pictures should be obvious to all of us living under the current and very crushing coronavirus regime. According to Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore (1950), "The function of masks varies from society to society, so that few generalizations can be made either as to their forms or uses." (p. 684) It seems to me, though, that masks can be used both to hide and to reveal, often simultaneously, and that even in the hiding there are signals. In our current situation, there can be little doubt that the wearing of masks is a signal sent out by the wearer, mostly to do with his or her political beliefs and personal psychology, far less to do with science, medicine, or public health.

Some of the masks and hoods shown below are worn by torturers and headsmen, others by cultists. There are some domino masks, which morphed in the 1920s through the 1940s into the mask worn by the uniquely American superhero. There are indeed superhero-like masks in the images shown below, none more iconic than the bat-woman mask from October 1933.

All but two of these masks and hoods are from Western culture, and only one has twentieth-century, technological origins. I think there's something to that--that Weird Tales, working within Western tradition and with its eyes mostly on the past, put the iconography of Western or European culture to good use, even if sometimes it resorted to tropes and clichés. Now here we are, nearly a hundred years after the founding of the magazine, and still we use the same iconography. Remember that the next time you see a superhero in a domino mask, a cultist or other figure wearing red robes (such as the Red Guards in the Star Wars series), and on and on.

One last note: the first image below shows not one but two masked figures, as well as a very, very long woman. The torturer or cultist may be about to sink a knife into her supine figure, but at least he's protecting her from terrible viruses and diseases by wearing a piece of really porous cloth over his face. And don't worry, what he has planned for her is a mostly peaceful human sacrifice. (He's planning to stab only one very small part of her body.) Luckily for her, she is about to be saved by a man in blue.

Love in a Time of Coronavirus

All of this mask-wearing makes me think of cartoons by the great Sam Cobean, especially the one shown here. From The Cartoons of Cobean (1952).

I wish everyone a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, better for sure than the one now ending.

Text copyright 2020, 2023 Terence E. Hanley

Friday, December 18, 2020

A Birthday Wish

As you know, my dad died in August. Today would have been his eighty-third birthday. He liked to say that he was FBI--Full-Blooded Irish. His Hanley grandparents came to America from western Ireland in the late 1800s. His great-grandfather served in the British army under the Duke of Wellington and fought at the Battle of Waterloo. I would wager that my dad and his lone surviving brother were the only living Americans in the year 2020 to have had a great-grandfather serve in that long-ago clash of arms. It's a pretty amazing thing when you think about it.

The Duke of Wellington was an Anglo-Irishman and advocated for Catholic Emancipation for his native island. My dad's family were and are staunch Catholics. Many were also staunchly anti-British. It is an irony that their progenitor served in the British army, but then they never knew anything about him or his service, for Peter Hanley is only a recent discovery for us.

My dad always liked to read about and watch movies and TV shows about Nazis and the Mafia. I asked him a long time ago why this was so. He said that he was fascinated by how people gain and exercise power. To one descended from a race of utterly powerless and often despairing Irishmen, the idea that a person might hold great power must have been perplexing, if not inconceivable, to him. To be poor and Irish and Catholic in both Ireland and America was to be on the bottom rung of the ladder. Charles Durning's character in Blazing Saddles said it all. Anyway, for the first time in my life, I realize that my dad was born almost exactly nine months after St. Patrick's Day: the power of the Irish people is in their great numbers and fecundity.

Also in their talk. My dad's mother's maiden name, Daly, refers to "one who is present at assemblies," or, simply, "gregarious," as I have seen it translated. It comes from the same root that has given the lower house of the Irish legislature--the Dáil Éireann--its name. The Dalys have also included many bards and poets going back to the Middle Ages. A Daly of Ireland had delivered to my dad's funeral the most breathtakingly beautiful and angelic arrangement of flowers I have ever seen--warm, creamy-white lilies and other flowers, extraordinary in every way. Thank you to our very, very distant cousin.

Of course the other side of the Irish gift for language is its equal gift for lies, exaggerations, boasting, misrepresentations, wordplay, and other verbal mischief. Remember that blarney and malarkey are Irish words. My dad had that talent in spades.

Happy Birthday, Dad!

Copyright 2020, 2023 Terence E. Hanley

Here is the URL and link to all of the Hanleys in the Internet Speculative Fiction Database:

And here are the Dalys:

Have fun reading!

Thursday, December 17, 2020

Utopia & Dystopia in Weird Tales-Part Two

Looking Forward to Going Backward

Probably the most well-known and certainly the most influential utopian novel by an American is Looking Backward: 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy, first published in 1888. It is a Utopia in Time, set in what was then the future year of 2000. This is in contrast to the earlier Utopia in Space, set in the present day, though somewhere else on Earth. It seems to me that the Utopia in Time became necessary and the Utopia in Space implausible as the world's undiscovered places shrank away from the Age of Exploration onward. Utopian novels were popular, too, during the very progressive-minded nineteenth century. Looking Backward is another in a line of such works. You could say that the title is ironic in more ways than one. For example, Looking Backward is actually a look forward, into a socialist future. There will forever be a double irony in the Socialist's headlong rush and ceaseless drive towards the medieval, feudalistic past of which he is so enamored.

We can forgive nineteenth-century naïveté about the nature and effects of the socialist regime. The horrors of twentieth-century socialism had yet to bubble from the bowels of the earth and the dark heart of humanity when Bellamy wrote. In fact, he failed to make it to the new century, dying as he did in 1898. Like H.P. Lovecraft, he was a New Englander, and like Lovecraft, he went too soon into his grave. (1) Oddly enough, Lovecraft also had to his credit a work called Looking Backward. Written and serialized in 1919-1920 and published as a booklet in 1920, Lovecraft's Looking Backward is an essay on the early days of amateur journalism.

Were authors of the nineteenth century really so naïve as to have swallowed whole the socialist fantasies of their day? Actually no. A few months before Looking Backward came out, a few readers had the chance to read a preemptive strike against it. The Republic of the Future: or, Socialism a Reality by Anna Bowman Dodd has never been as well known or widely read as Bellamy's book, yet it has proved far more prescient: leave it to the Conservative always to envision clearly the disastrous results of the progressive program. And she was a woman to boot. (A woman in the old-fashioned sense of the phrase, meaning a woman.)

The first or one of the first dystopian novels of the nineteenth century, The Last Man (1826), was also by a woman, Mary Shelley. That fact strengthens the case that she was the originator of the genre of science fiction. Her title anticipated the Nietzschean concept of the Last Man, from Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for All and None (1883-1885). All lead to works of the twentieth century, including Brave New World (1932), Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), and The Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis (1943).

The dystopian novel was a subgenre quick to reach maturity. There are dystopian elements in The Time Machine by H.G. Wells (1895), as well as in other of his works. (2) The Iron Heel by Jack London (1908) features a well-developed concept of dystopian society and totalitarian means. I wrote about The Iron Heel five years ago. At the time I made a distinction between London's fictional capitalistic or oligarchical dystopia and the real-world, socialistic governmental or political dystopia, the distinction being that the former seems implausible, while evidence of the latter is abundant in countless millions of starved and murdered dead during the last century. I admit that I was skeptical of Jack London's vision. Now I'm not so sure. In fact I'm starting to see that he may have been right in his way. What he failed to foresee, however, is that we would have a seeming contradiction: a regime formed by capitalist leftists, by illiberal liberals not very interested in exercising conventional political power, not when working outside of government and within culture and commerce is so much more satisfying and surer to get them what they want, which is the same old-fashioned remaking of the world according to their vision.

Anyway, a really astonishing thing happened in 1924: E.P. Dutton of New York published an English translation of We by the Russian author Yevgeny Zamyatin, and in it we had a fully formed Dystopia, a model for all subsequent stories of its kind and undoubtedly an influence on many of them. I call it astonishing because of its precociousness: written in 1920-1921, We came before the establishment of--even before the coining of the word--totalitarianism, and yet Zamyatin's novel has it all so right. (He was of course a witness to the formation of the regime that would become the U.S.S.R.) We had its precedents to be sure. The parable of the Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov (1879-1880) is an obvious example. (3) But here, sprung from the earth like a well-armed warrior from a dragon's tooth, came a novel that still stands, and is as fresh and pertinent now as the day it rolled off of the presses nearly a century ago . . .

The year after Weird Tales was first published.

To be continued . . .

The dust jacket from the 1951 Modern Library edition of  Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy, with a design by the adopted Hoosier artist E. McKnight Kauffer (1890-1954).

(1) I mentioned in my previous entry that the utopian novel has become a rarity. Now I find that just this year, author William P. Stodden published The Practical Effects of Time Travel: A Memoir, based on Bellamy's Looking Backward. Congratulations to Dr. Stodden on his accomplishment and success.
(2) The theme of a division in society between the low or subterranean and the high or ethereal is in The Time Machine. It is repeated in the movie Metropolis (1927), the Star Trek episode "The Cloud Minders" (1969), the Cloud City sequences of The Empire Strikes Back (1980), and the recent animated short subject Smash and Grab from Pixar (2019), which is beautifully made and well worth a look--and then another after that.
(3) We might call the parable of the Grand Inquisitor a Dystopia in Time but of a conservative stripe, opposite the progressive Utopia in Time. To wit: the progressive Utopia is set in the future, which is all the Progressive cares about. The conservative Dystopia in this case is set in the past. I'm not sure of Yevgeny Zamyatin's politics, but he turned things around: We is set in the far future. Dystopian stories after that were also set in the future (although there are dystopian elements in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy, which is set in the distant past.) The dystopia in The Iron Heel, though set in the future, near and far, is superseded by a progressive utopia of the even farther future, thus the pattern holds. Offhand, I can't think of another book that includes both a Utopia in Time and a Dystopia in Time.

Revised slightly and corrected on December 18, 2020.
Copyright 2020, 2023 Terence E. Hanley

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Utopia & Dystopia in Weird Tales-Part One

Man has always sought to embody in literature his visions of a better life.

--Frederic R. White, the first line of his introduction to
Famous Utopias of the Renaissance (1946) (1)

Utopia Before Dystopia

Utopia came before Dystopia. It probably goes back to half-memories of the Garden of Eden, of a lost Golden Age, perhaps ultimately to a keen and piercing nostalgia for childhood, for infancy, even for a life enwrapped in the loving womb. Life and the world seem miserable to our memories and imaginations. We long for a return to perfect happiness, and we will have it, properly in our works of art and imagination, too often disastrously in our attempts to bring it into the real world.

The proper place for Utopia is in art. Countless millions have perished at attempts to bring it to life. We are not gods and are incapable of perfection. We cannot create whole worlds except in our imaginations. In our creative impulses alone--in art, in love, in family, in other things--do we emulate God and reach towards eternity. He is not a destroyer. In attempting to usurp his role and authority--in trying to remake his Creation--we in our madness and in our blackest hearts murder and destroy. The real-world Utopia is murderous and destructive. The real-world Utopia is actually Dystopia.

Utopia goes back to our beginnings. Dystopia is a later creation and became fully formed only in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. That is to be expected, I think, inasmuch as Dystopia seems possible only under mass conditions, the nineteenth being the first mass-century in human history.

Utopia was first located in Space. Published during the Age of Exploration, the original Utopia (1516), by Thomas More, tells of an island discovered in the New World. (2) Utopias, then, are related to the Lost Worlds genre. Sometimes the two are indistinguishable. Even as late as 1915 and the publication of Herland, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Utopia was an undiscovered place on present-day Earth. But even then time was running out for the utopian storyteller.

Islandia (1942), by Austin Tappan Wright, was a very late entry among utopian novels, a last hurrah for an old genre. Too late to take place in an already fully (or mostly) discovered world, the events in Islandia are set in the past, in or about 1905, before the Great War and disaster had struck. As the twentieth century moved down its bloody road, Utopia could no longer be located in Space. After World War II, it would instead have to be located in Time, in what you might call the Lost Worlds of the Future. If it wasn't already a subgenre of science fiction by then, the utopian story became one in the postwar world. I suggested not long ago that no author today seems ready--or naïve enough--to attempt a contemporary utopian novel or even one set on a future Earth. Stories of Utopia have become a rarity. They may even be nonexistent. In contrast, stories of Dystopia have thrived in the twenty-first century.

To be continued . . .

(1) Frederic Randolph White (1910-1984) was a professor of comparative and classical literature and a founding faculty member of Florida Presbyterian College, now Eckerd College, in St. Petersburg. In addition to Famous Utopias of the Renaissance, Prof. White wrote an introduction to Looking Backward: 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy (1888).
(2) It is ironic that the author of Utopia was named More, for the asymptotic more is the ceaseless pursuit of the real-world utopian theorist.

Revised December 18, 2020.
Original text copyright 2020, 2023 Terence E. Hanley

Thursday, December 3, 2020

Star References

First, the Star Trek reference:

Several months ago I wrote about the Star Trek episode "Patterns of Force." I ended with a prediction that John Gill would not be president. Well, it looks like we'll have him after all. That's assuming he isn't machine-gunned by Melakon before Inauguration Day. Who'd-a-thunk-it but I was wrong. I should follow the example of a wise man who once said, "I don't like to make predictions, especially about the future."

After the election, another quote came into my head. From H.L. Mencken:

Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.

At the risk of making another faulty prediction, I think that the people who voted for John Gill are likely to get--and they will certainly deserve--exactly what they voted for.

* * *

Now, the Star Wars reference:

I had thought that by being elected the first time around, our current president had destroyed the three dynasties that had preceded his presidency. Another bad prediction. He may have blown up the Death Star, but he got only two out of the three. Dark Helmet escaped, he has combed the desert for some helpers, and now the Empire is about to strike back. There may be disassembled droids, carbon-frozen heroes, and severed wrists ahead of us, but there's bound to be a return and a third movie if we can just hang on long enough.

In the meantime, here's another quote for today from many decades ago, again from Mr. Mencken:

As democracy is perfected, the office of the president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day, the plain folks of the land will reach their heart's desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.

* * *

That's about enough, I guess--or more than enough--of all of that. Now let's get back to Weird Tales, which is what this blog is supposed to be about.

Original text copyright 2020, 2023 Terence E. Hanley

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

A Quote for Today from 1969

The chance for a violent revolution in America is always there. There's always that many stupid people. I think it would be a ridiculous waste of time--a typical loser's revolution. Makes me vomit to hear the word. People don't know what a revolution is. Everything that they ever read, everything they ever thought about a revolution is completely irrelevant to this day and age, especially in the United States. There are more subtle ways to the altering of things. It's not a question of picking everything up and dumping it, and starting over again. I simply don't believe that. There are a lot of good things about the way society is set up today. The main problem is education. The education of the people who elect those representatives. An uneducated mass cannot function in a democracy. [. . .] I wouldn't want to have any part of a revolution engineered and executed by today's crop of young rebels, because they wouldn't have the faintest idea of what to do after they took over.

--Frank Zappa, quoted in "Rock and Revolution," Circus magazine, July 1969

Compiled by Terence E. Hanley, 2019, 2023

Monday, November 30, 2020

What's Your Vector, D-503?

From We by Yevgeny Zamyatin (1924):

    This is merely a copy, word for word, of what was published this morning in the State newspaper:

    "In another hundred and twenty days the building of the Integral will be completed. The great historic hour is near, when the first Integral will rise into the limitless space of the universe. One thousand years ago your heroic ancestors subjected the whole earth to the power of the United State. A still more glorious task is before you: the integration of the indefinite equation of the Cosmos by the use of the glass, electric, fire-breathing Integral. Your mission is to subjugate to the grateful yoke of reason the unknown beings who live on other planets, and who are perhaps still in the primitive state of freedom. If they will not understand that we are bringing them a mathematically faultless happiness, our duty will be to force them to be happy. But before we take up arms, we shall try the power of words.

    "In the name of The Well-Doer, the following is announced herewith to all Numbers of the United State:

    "Whoever feels capable must consider it his duty to write treatises, poems, manifestoes, odes, and other compositions on the greatness and the beauty of the United State.

    "This will be the first cargo which the Integral will carry.

    "Long live the United State! Long live the Numbers!! Long live the Well-Doer!!!"

    I feel my cheeks burn as I write this. To integrate the colossal, universal equation! To unbend the wild curve, to straighten it out to a tangent--to a straight line! For the United State is a straight line, a great, divine, precise, wise line, the wisest of lines!

--From Record One of We by Eugene Zamiatin (Yevgeny Zamyatin)
(Dutton paperback edition, [1959]), pp. 3-4

* * *

My thesis is that there is a dichotomy between infinity and entropy, between the circle and the arrow. That seems to be the dichotomy set up in We, with the man D-503 on the side of obedience and submission to an entropic Utopia in the form of the United State, versus the woman I-330 on the side of rebellion, an endless cycle of life, and no final revolution. He and the State seek happiness. She and her fellow revolutionaries prefer freedom. The same dichotomy--obedience and submission, which lead to a yearned-for happiness among humanity, versus freedom, with all of its inherent burdens and occasional and perhaps inevitable unhappiness--is also in the parable of the Grand Inquisitor.

* * *

The mission of the Integral is the selfsame mission of the historical and present-day Socialist/Statist. In summary:

To subjugate to the grateful yoke of reason those who live in a primitive state of freedom. Our duty will be to force them to be happy.

The Grand Inquisitor says that humanity yearns for unity and a unified State. The Well-Doer in We provides it, and it's the same goal that is afoot in the world today: unity, equality, and an equal distribution of all appearances, all abilities, and all things--not individuality, not freedom, not merit. As D-503 writes: 

"We" is from God, "I" from the devil.

I don't think it's any coincidence that the woman who disturbs his happiness bears the prefix I.

* * *

And so he sets out in the first of his records "[t]o unbend the wild curve, to straighten it out to a tangent--to a straight line! For the United State is a straight line, a great, divine, precise, wise line, the wisest of lines!" (emphasis added).

The entropic universe is one in which there are outward lines of force, an uncountable number of vectors or arrows pointing away from the Big Bang and an uncentered, unfocused Cosmos towards a definitive end to history. The entropic earthly State lies at the endpoint of History, at the tip of the arrow that flies through Time in its inexorable path. An arrow flies in an arc, though, its path being bent by the force of the feminine Earth. D-503 wants to unbend that wild curve: men draw lines, women move in circles.

* * *

Like Woman, infinity moves in circles that cannot be straightened. Like her, the Earth and its inhabitants are free, in their hearts wild and untamed. They--we--live in and will forever live in "the primitive state of freedom." We cannot be subdued. So get all of that out of your heads, those of you who would like to impose your will upon us. What you're trying to do cannot be done. It's a fantasy and a delusion. We are free, we are made free, and there's nothing you can do about it. Murder, torture, and imprison us: Free. Oppress us: still Free. Try to take away our rights, our individuality, our words, our way of life: Forever Free and Indomitable.

Finally a pertinent quote from a work of today:

In his objection to the idea of the fluidity and mutability of human nature, John Adams resonates with Czeslaw Milosz a century later, the Polish poet laureate who argues that the ultimate enemy of the Communist regime is not the propertied class, Kulaks, and capitalists, the nations and churches which prevent man from recognizing himself as purely proletariat worker, but "Man, This Enemy"--human nature itself, born anew in every generation, with its desire for truth and freedom, is the ultimate enemy of the totalitarian state. (Emphasis added.)

(From "How America's Adams Family Inherited And Preserved The Pilgrim Mind" by historian Susan Hansen on the website of The Federalist, November 24, 2020, here.) 

Original text copyright 2020, 2023 Terence E. Hanley

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Happy Thanksgiving!

I have been writing about some not very happy things, including 1984, one of the most depressing and dispiriting books I have ever read. That's not quite right for Thanksgiving week, so I'll put it on pause. I have a little more on the topic, including at least one more quote, but that can all wait until next week.

* * *

I read the words of a writer on the Internet who wrote that he has over 46,000 unopened--or maybe it's unanswered--emails in his inbox. I don't feel so bad now. I have email messages, comments, cards, letters, and other things that have gone into limbo. They have been there for weeks and months, some for years. This isn't a good way to be.

If you read my lone entry from last month, you know that things have suddenly changed a lot for me and my family. Our situation from the last five years, which culminated in the death of our dad in August of this year, hasn't quite reached its end, but there has come an unavoidable and irreversible turning in our lives. As some of you know and the rest can imagine, this is a really hard thing to go through. I and we--suddenly orphans, all of us--are struggling every day. But not everything is so bad or so difficult. There are some positives in our lives and in the way things are turning. In any case, life goes on. My friend and his wife had a baby this month, for example, and life goes on. I hope that there will soon be a turning in our whole country, too, and that this will mean we can all go back to living lives again instead of the half-lives--or less--that we have been enduring in this sad, lonely, bizarre, and utterly stupid year.

* * *

Despite everything that has happened this year, we have so much for which we can be thankful. I am thankful for many things, large and small. I am thankful for whatever gifts I might have received in my abilities to think about, research, and write about the things that you read and see here. I am thankful, too, for the chance I have in this digital age to do the things that I have always wanted to do--to write, draw, and publish what I write and draw, all on my own and at little or no cost--things I might not have been able to do so easily in previous ages. I thank everyone who reads this blog and who keeps coming back to it, for whatever reason, whether for enjoyment or edification, or even if it's to find something about which to be angry, offended, or infuriated. You are welcome here as well as anyone. I want to say thank you to the people who have written to me, either on this blog or directly by email, in sympathy, support, and understanding, since I came back at the end of September. I will write back to thank you personally. I especially thank Randal A. Everts, who has been generous and supportive in offering information, photographs, and corrections from his vast trove of research, stored in "The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis."

* * *

The American project began as an adventure, an escape from oppression, and a vision and ambition to found a place in which we and our posterity might live out and enjoy our lives in freedom. We haven't always done very well in all of that, but if there are arcs in history, the arc in ours is towards greater freedom, justice, and prosperity. Sometimes there is a drawing back, but always there is a going forward again, towards the goals and ideals of our founding. These are too big, I think, for any small person or group of people to overcome, let alone to defeat. It hasn't happened before, and it isn't going to happen now. Our country is built upon a rock, deeper, greater, and more solid than the one upon which the Pilgrims disembarked--an event that was at once, I guess, apocryphal and symbolic--400 years ago next month. No one is going to dislodge the rock or break it up, I'm convinced of that, and our nation will go on. We will not only survive the current hard times but come to thrive and prosper again. I'm convinced of that, too. And so I wish everyone life, freedom, and prosperity, and I say:

Happy Thanksgiving, America!

Weird Tales, October 1930, with cover art by Hugh Rankin. This is an October cover so not quite right for Thanksgiving, but it has autumn leaves in bright colors. Just ignore the knife. 

Copyright 2020, 2023 Terence E. Hanley

Sunday, November 22, 2020

To Entropy and Beyond!

Winston Smith has his tormenter in O'Brien. D-503, the protagonist in We, has his in I-330. She is a different kind of tormenter, though, for D-503 is in crazy love with her. We all know about the torments of love and what we will do for it.

I-330 says some interesting things. First:

"The 'last one' is a child's story. Children are afraid of the infinite, and it is necessary that children should not be frightened, so that they may sleep through the night."

Then, in response to D-503:

"Ah, 'evenly'! 'Everywhere'! That is the point, entropy! Psychological entropy."

D-503, still bound up in the United State (the One State in some translations), believes in the last revolution and the end of history. I-330, a true revolutionary, calls him out on the absurdity of such things. She chooses infinity. He would rather have entropy. Consideration of this dichotomy opens doors . . .

* * *

I-330 is a woman, passionate and full of emotion. She pushes. She coaxes and cajoles and harangues. As a woman she moves in cycles, and cycles roll infinitely through infinite Time. What is the last revolution--literally the last revolving, the last turning of the cycle? What is the last wave? The last reaction? The last transmission? The last star? The last universe? The last woman, turning and cycling through Time?

Her symbol is a circle. Or a cup, its mouth a circle. There is no beginning or end to it.

His is an arrow, with a head and a tail, flying in a line, straight through Time, with an origin and a destination. Or, pointed, a triangle, a blade--hard and angular rather than soft and rounded.

The flight of the arrow has its beginning--its initial burst of energy--and it has its flight and its bright flash in the sunlight as it flies; then, it has its end, at which point all of its energy has been expended. Meanwhile, the circle keeps turning.

She is a planet, Earth. His arrow follows a flightpath, bends in an arc under the influence of her gravity. Her gamete is a globe. Like an arrow, his has a head and a tail. It wriggles towards hers in its sinusoidal wave. Together they renew Life in its endless cycles . . .

* * *

History has two ways, the cyclic and the linear, the circle and the arrow. There will be either infinity--no end of history, no last revolution--or entropy, an end after which there can be no further revolution, no further turning. In entropy, in fact, there is no after. Time reaches its end. There are no further events.

We move through history, turning and turning. To disrupt that turning, D-503 and people like him under the United or One State--people among us, too, people in the real world--leftists, socialists, and statists of every stripe--seek an end to history, a final expenditure of energy, an even and entropic Utopia in which there is no further change, no further events, as D-503 sees it: "In the whole world, evenly, everywhere, there is distributed . . ." These are his words and theirs: evenly, everyoneeverywhere, unityequality, equity, distributionredistribution. To the rest of us, all of that means an even, gray sludge of humanity, a mass of undifferentiated zombies trudging over the earth and through their featureless lives, like in the Kate Bush video. To this we say no, as does I-330:

"Don't you as a mathematician know that only differences--only differences--in temperature, only thermic contrasts make for life? And if all over the world there are evenly warm or evenly cold bodies, they must be pushed off! . . . In order to get flame, explosions! And we shall push! . . ." [Ellipses in the original.]

As I-330, a woman of great passion and feeling, understands, Life is the anti-entropic Force. We live, and so we resist entropy. Dull, blind, mindless, plodding, entropy seeks the opposite, to end us, maybe not specifically but as a general process. But history will not end, for as long as there is Life, there will be cycles of Life and a forever turning . . .

* * *

Because there are two ways of history, there are also two ways of literature, or at least of fantasy and science fiction. One is entropic: Utopia, and its Mr. Hyde identity, Dystopia. (As I have written before, Utopia and Dystopia are the same thing, or, put another way, every Utopia is also a Dystopia.) Tales of Utopia were common and popular in the early days of fantasy and science fiction. I'm not sure that anyone would be so naïve as to attempt one now. (That should tell real-world utopian theorists--the socialists and statists among us--a thing or two about their prospects for bringing their fantasies to life.) Dystopian stories are still popular, though, even if they function as vehicles of satire or commentary, or as cautionary tales, or simply as escapist fantasies, rather than as serious possibilities. I see We as a satire and a fantasy, pointed to be sure but not necessarily an attempt at extrapolation or prognostication. In contrast, it's hard to think of 1984 as anything less than a nightmarish vision of our future. George Orwell may have written his novel late in life when his own prospects appeared so bleak, but he and his cohorts were still living in the shadow of totalitarianism, and the totalitarian mind and its ideas were still among them--and on the move. Stalin may have died just a few years later, but there were new totalitarian fantasies then slouching towards Babylon. We live with them today, and they stalk us everywhere we go.

* * *

The other way of literature is towards the infinite. Nearly fifty years ago, Donald A. Wollheim wrote: "The essence of science fiction is that this is a changing world." He assumed an "Infinite Future" and urged "a belief in human infinity." The essence of science fiction would seem to be towards infinity: there is reason for hope, still possibilities for progress and change, for there is still life, humanity, and the human mind still at work in the universe. But that was fifty years ago. Where do we stand now? Does science fiction still "maintain a belief in human infinity"? Or have science fiction writers and readers come to prefer entropy?

* * *

Because it is about the future, science fiction easily becomes politicized. Science fiction may in fact be inherently political (and from there, perhaps inevitably utopian). There have certainly been political controversies among writers of science fiction and fantasy. Some if not all of these have to do with racial and gender politics, in other words, the fruits of critical theory. Totalitarianism is a many-headed hydra. This is just another of its heads. Believe it or not, there are still old-fashioned Marxists or socialists among the ranks of science fiction and fantasy writers, too. Evidently they haven't gotten the memo that they and their ideas have become outdated. They still seek Utopia and entropy. But isn't every socialist or totalitarian scheme, whether Marxist or post-Marxist, utopian and entropic in its ends? And if science fiction is about the infinite future, then how can these things be reconciled? Can there be a positive entropic science fiction?

* * *

In history, in literature, in politics, there comes an inevitable confrontation with the problem of good versus evil. A neverending problem, a neverending battle. Neverending. You already know this, but neverending means forever. For as long as there is Life, there will be inputs. There will never be a winding down. When we face evil, we must also be facing infinity. Maybe that's one of the reasons that tales of infinity must not be told, because they frighten children and the childlike mind.

At every page, in front of every image, I stop to catch my breath. And I tell myself: This is the end, they have reached the last limit; what follows can only be less horrible; surely it is impossible to invent suffering more naked; cruelty more refined. Moments later I admit my error: I underestimated the assassin's ingenuity. The progression into the inhuman transcends the exploration of the human. Evil, more than good, suggests infinity.

Those are the words of Elie Wiesel, who chose to tell stories of what he had witnessed and experienced. He has been looking at albums of photographs, a graphic record of the evil that man does to man. In these images, he encounters the possibility that evil may be infinite, a frightening one for all of us. (From "Snapshots" in One Generation After [Pocket Books, 1978], p. 62.)

* * *

The utopian theorist necessarily believes that good, his idea of good, can and will--of course!--triumph over evil. That is the purpose and endpoint of History after all. It cannot be otherwise, for History is an irresistible Force. Its ways and results are known. It has an arc (like an arrow flying through Time) that always bends the right way. It has a right side and a wrong side, and the wrong side must always lose. Once evil is overcome, we on the right side of History shall have Utopia. And entropy. They leave off that part. Either that or they yearn for it--the uniform coldness of evenly distributed bodies, filled with reason and drained of Life. In this vision, the infinite, the neverending and ever-changing, the endless cycling and turning, perhaps what O'Brien calls "the process of life"--Life itself--all of this must cease.

* * *

But even O'Brien is not so naïve. He understands that there will always be an enemy to overcome, that punishment must always be meted out, for human beings will not go easily into sameness and submission. He has nothing but contempt for "the stupid hedonistic Utopias that the old reformers imagined." (Signet, p. 220) (Could George Orwell have foreseen the coming of Herbert Marcuse?) At first glance, we might think that O'Brien seeks an endpoint to history, that he, too, seeks entropy. (I assumed that the other day when I wrote.) After all, 1984 is a dystopian work, and Dystopia is seemingly entropic by definition. But O'Brien doesn't plan for stasis. He in fact believes in action, progress, change, refinement:

"Progress in our world will be progress toward more pain."


"But always--do not forget this, Winston--always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler." [Emphasis added.]

Remember, O'Brien's vision of the future is "a boot stamping on a human face--forever": the tense is the present progressive. You know this already, but forever means neverending. Not entropy but infinity. An asymptote, always approaching perfection but never reaching it. Always with inputs, never with any final expenditure. "Evil, more than good, suggests infinity." Human depravity knows no limit and no end.

* * *

Like history and literature, the cosmos has two ways: it will end either in entropy--an evenly distributed, red-black sludge of matter and energy--or with the beginning of a new cycle. Put another way, the question might be: Is the nature of the cosmos feminine or masculine? It all depends on whether or not there is enough matter hiding inside it to make it all fall back on itself. Or whether or not there is enough outward-flowing energy to make it expand forever. (Maybe these are both the same question.) If I understand things correctly, there is a tussle going on among cosmologists and astrophysicists who believe that there is versus those who believe that there isn't. There are more questions and hypotheses, too; there is not necessarily a dichotomy but maybe a polychotomy (my new word). I won't pretend to know the ins and outs of all of it, but to paraphrase an old saying, a psychologist is a man who watches everyone else when the question of dark matter and energy enters the room.

* * *

There is the question of how the universe will end, either with a whimper or a bang (or, as Robert Frost--perfect surname--pondered, whether with fire or ice), but there is also the question of why people believe--or more precisely, why they want to believe--in one thing or another. Could there be among cosmologists the same divide as among the rest of humanity, including lowly writers of fantasy and science fiction? Could there be among them a dichotomy between infinity and entropy? Between the circle and the arrow? Between Utopia and the neverending push? Between an end of history and no end at all? In every belief, there is the question, What does holding this belief offer to the holder of it? Can this or that philosophical position or scientific postulate really be just a bit of wishful thinking? A desire to force the vast universe into accord with our own minute beliefs? Do you prefer entropy because it confirms some other belief that you hold, one too dear to give up? Do you run away from infinity because it scares you? Does the possibility of the infinite suggest a Creator of the infinite? Or maybe it can be used as a substitute for that Creator. Yeah, that's the ticket. For if the universe is infinite in Time, and if it simply creates itself, again and again, then we can dispense with any Creator seated above the universe. We can apply Occam's Razor--a blade--to the problem and keep our assumptions simple: the Universe itself is the Creator, and our beliefs and non-beliefs become thereby satisfied. We can thereby believe in and yearn for infinity in the Cosmos, as it suits us, just as we might believe in and yearn for entropy on Earth. And if there is no supernatural creator of the infinite, then we as human beings--as the incarnate minds of the Creator-Universe--may create our own infinitude. We may stop at nothing--there can be no limits to anything we might imagine or do, including any evil or depravity we might commit.

* * *

But where does that leave entropy? If we are to climb the Tower of Babel, seize godlike power, and become the creators of infinitude, then what are we to do with the possibility that the universe might go on expanding forever? Entropy might be perfectly fine for the pedestrian, earthbound imagination of the utopian theorist, but what about those whose imaginations wish to wander among--ultimately to create--the planets and stars? There may be infinity in entropy, for the final, entropic universe is also infinite, in Space rather than in Time. But how satisfying is that to the believer in--to the person who desperately yearns for--an endlessly cycling universe? Not very, I suppose. And maybe it's a little frightening, too, for what is the way out? What can there possibly be outside the universe that could somehow change things inside? What can we get to help us reverse this ultimate, crushing, depressing entropy? Nothing. There can be nothing. We must be believe in nothing.

* * *

Or maybe we can believe in ourselves and our ability to create our own Mini-Me universe in which we can escape from entropy or some other universe-ending disaster, like baby Moses in his basket or R2-D2 and C-3PO shot out of the Rebel blockade runner. Yes, that's an idea in physics. Credit goes to Dr. Alan Guth of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It might easily be an idea for a science fiction story: "Go ahead--go eat at the Restaurant at the End of the Universe. Meanwhile, we're going to work on our escape pod." It sounds like the origin story of Superman. It would also allow for new Life and the beginning of new cycles . . .

* * *

Draw any line long enough in a universe warped by gravity and it becomes a circle. And so here we have a circle: to the socialist or statist imagining an earthbound Utopia, entropy is suitable and desirable. It is, after all, the goal and endpoint of History and all of his own efforts. There will be a last revolution, History will end, and there will be no after. Consequently, tales of the infinite must not be told because they will frighten the children. On the other hand, entropy frightens the materialist taking the long view, for what is he to do with his belief in and yearning for the infinite-in-Time, endlessly cycling Creator-Universe if everything is to end in a completely uniform, dull sludge of matter-energy? There must be new beginnings, new waves, new cycles, the arms of new galaxies turning in the sky like the wings of a windmill . . . 

* * *

Maybe I have been setting up a row of straw men so that I might easily knock them down. Maybe I'm imagining beliefs and non-beliefs that don't really exist. Maybe things aren't so simple. But if they do and if they are, then I might point out that there are solutions to these problems for the seeker after earthly entropy or cosmological infinity, if he or she will only have them (more for him than for her, who may believe in and seek after the Infinite by working in the merely infinite): If the utopian will give up on his idea of creating heaven on earth and allow the true Creator his greater prerogative. If the materialist will simply transfer her belief in and yearning for the unseen or unknown from dark matter or dark energy or whatever other dark force to something more. If both will believe in Life and Love, recognize and embrace the infinite, the eternal, and the absolute, have faith in the Creator of it all, who exists outside it and above it forever, keeps it all going and turning forever . . .

There could be a solution if only they would have it.

Original text copyright 2020, 2023 Terence E. Hanley

Friday, November 20, 2020

Quotes for Today from 1984-No. 7

O'Brien speaks:

"How does one man assert his power over another, Winston?"

    Winston thought. "By making him suffer," he said.

    "Exactly. By making him suffer. Obedience is not enough. Unless he is suffering, how can you be sure that he is obeying your will and not his own? Power is in inflicting pain and humiliation. Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing. Do you begin to see, then, what kind of world we are creating? It is the exact opposite of the stupid hedonistic Utopias that the old reformers imagined. A world of fear and treachery and torment, a world of trampling and being trampled upon, a world which will grow not less but more merciless as it refines itself. Progress in our world will be progress towards more pain. The old civilizations claimed that they were founded on love or justice. Ours is founded upon hatred. In our world there will be no emotions except fear, rage, triumph, and self-abasement. Everything else we shall destroy--everything. Already we are breaking down the habits of thought which have survived from before the Revolution. We have cut the links between child and parent, and between man and man, and between man and woman. No one dares trust a wife or a child or a friend any longer. But in the future there will be no wives and no friends. Children will be taken from their mothers at birth, as one takes eggs from a hen. The sex instinct will be eradicated. Procreation will be an annual formality like the renewal of a ration card. We shall abolish the orgasm. Our neurologists are at work upon it now. There will be no loyalty, except loyalty towards the Party. There will be no love, except the love of Big Brother. There will be no laughter, except the laugh of triumph over a defeated enemy. There will be no art, no literature, no science. When we are omnipotent we shall have no more need of science. There will be no distinction between beauty and ugliness. There will be no curiosity, no enjoyment of the process of life. All competing pleasures will be destroyed. But always--do not forget this, Winston--always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face--forever." (Signet, pp. 219-220)

* * *

Nineteen Eighty-Four is a horror story, a frightening and depressing look into human nature and human history, a projection into the future of everything that a sad and damaged man near the end of his life had seen and had come to understand about his fellow human beings. It may be off in its particulars, but Orwell's vision of the future was not meant to be a prediction but an extrapolation, in other words, a work akin to science fiction, if it is not in fact a work in that genre. The particulars don't matter so much as the main thrust of the book, which is, I think, summarized in this quote from Winston Smith's tormenter, O'Brien. It's a long quote. Some of its points might be dulled a little by being knocked around in such a long, dense paragraph. But I wanted to give it in its entirety, better for the immersion, better, too, for an effect that threatens to overwhelm the reader before reaching its famous and despairing conclusion:

"If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face--forever."

If you take it as a piece, you might think that O'Brien's plan has not actually been brought about in the real world. Maybe we don't have anything to worry about after all. But individual sentences and phrases might just as easily appear today in an op-ed or piece of reporting, in an interview, video, meme, policy statement, or social media posting:

"Obedience is not enough. [. . .] Power is in inflicting pain and humiliation."

"[Our civilization] is founded upon hatred."

"In our world there will be no emotions except fear, rage, triumph, and self-abasement. Everything else we shall destroy--everything."

"We have cut the links between child and parent, and between man and man, and between man and woman."

"There will be no loyalty, except loyalty towards the Party."

"There will be no laughter, except the laugh of triumph over a defeated enemy."

"There will be no art, no literature, no science."

"There will be no distinction between beauty and ugliness."

"Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless."

That trampling on a helpless "enemy"--a woman, a child, an elderly person, a man in a wheelchair, a person who has been knocked senseless, a weak and defenseless person alone against a howling, rabid, demon-possessed mob--is going on every day and every night in our streets. I suggested the other day that O'Brien's ways may have been rendered obsolete by more efficient and insidious methods that revolutionaries began to develop in the 1950s. (That is, after the death of Stalin in 1953; Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud by Herbert Marcuse, a seminal work, or the seminal work of New Left and critical theory claptrap, was published two years later.) But maybe not. If you're attempting to exercise or seize power, violence and a mindless surrender to a hate-filled mass or mob can still go a long way.

* * *

As an artist, I notice and am repulsed by the idea that there will be--and so often is in our world--no distinction made between beauty and ugliness. We are told and expected to believe and affirm--to shout out--that ugly things are beautiful and that beauty is relative, oppressive, obsolete, or just plain nonexistent. These are the ideas, I think: That the world is an ugly place. People are ugly, too, and ought to be hated. We as individuals ought to hate ourselves, too, and make ourselves ugly. There is no fixed and unchanging principle of beauty, certainly not of love. To believe in or appreciate beauty is delusional, even dangerous. We will have instead a society founded upon hatred, an anarchic, nihilistic, hate-filled world in which nothing must be created and everything must be destroyed.

These are visions for our present and future.

I don't know the year, country, or publishing house of this edition, but I know a Flash Gordon-style collar when I see one, and this is one. Cover artist unknown.

Original text copyright 2020, 2023 Terence E. Hanley

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Quotes for Today from 1984 (and Before)-No. 6

From 1984:

"You understand well enough how the Party maintains itself in power. Now tell me why we cling to power. What is our motive? Why should we want power?"

[. . .]

He [Winston] knew what O'Brien would say: that the Party did not seek power for its own ends, but only for the good of the majority. That it sought power because men in the mass were frail, cowardly creatures who could not endure liberty or face the truth [. . . .] That the choice for mankind lay between freedom and happiness, and that, for the great bulk of mankind, happiness was better. That the Party was the eternal guardian of the weak, a dedicated sect doing evil that good might come, sacrificing its own happiness to that of others." (Signet, p. 216)

Except that that's not what O'Brien says in answer to his own question. We'll get to that in a minute. In the meantime, let's hear what's on the mind of the Grand Inquisitor:

"They [humanity] will be convinced, too, that they can never be free, for they are weak, vicious, worthless and rebellious. Thou didst promise them the bread of Heaven, but, I repeat again, can it compare with earthly bread in the eyes of the weak, ever-sinful and ignoble race of man?" (Bobbs-Merrill, p. 30)


"No, we care for the weak, too. They are sinful and rebellious, but in the end they too will become obedient. They will marvel at us and look on us as gods, because we are ready to endure the freedom which they have found so dreadful and to rule over them--so awful it will seem to them to be free." (p. 30)

[. . .]

"And they will be glad to believe our answer, for it will save them from the great anxiety and terrible agony they endure at present in making a free decision for themselves. And all will be happy, all the millions of creatures, except the hundred thousand who rule over them. For only we, we who guard the mystery, shall be unhappy." (p. 40)

So maybe George Orwell had read The Brothers Karamazov and kept it in mind as he was writing 1984. More than just decades had passed since the publication of Dostoyevski's novel, however. A clear-eyed witness to history, Orwell understood as much. Weary, benighted, naïve, trapped inside his story, Winston Smith does not. The Grand Inquisitor's motive, cynical as it is, wasn't quite cynical enough for 1948-1949, let alone for our own times, for here is O'Brien's answer to his own question:

"The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; only power, pure power. [. . .] We are different from all the oligarchies of the past in that we we know what we are doing. All the others, even those who resembled ourselves, were cowards and hypocrites. The German Nazis and the Russian Communists came very close to us in their methods, but they never had the courage to recognize their motives. They pretended, perhaps they even believed, that they had seized power unwillingly and for a limited time, and that just round the corner there lay a paradise where human beings would be free and equal. We are not like that. We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish a dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power. Now do you begin to understand me?" [Emphasis added.] (p. 217)

* * *

There are still those among us who seek power for its own sake, for the opportunity to exercise their will over all. Like the poor, they will always be with us. But maybe the age of the Grand Inquisitor, the Benefactor, Lenin, and O'Brien has passed. Then again, maybe not. It's worth noting here that seventy years separated the initial publication of The Brothers Karamazov from that of 1984--and that seventy-plus-one separate us from the publication of Orwell's novel. In that first seventy-year period, the Grand Inquisitor's motives appear to have been rendered obsolete by O'Brien's naked, cruel, and cynical will to power. At least the Grand Inquisitor imagined that what he was doing was for the good of humanity. O'Brien says: "The object of power is power." Now another seventy-year period has passed. What of O'Brien's ideas now? Have they been rendered obsolete, too?

I'll answer that question in a hurry: I think that the aspiring tyrants in our midst have come to understand that murder, torture, imprisonment, starvation, and all of the other overt and vulgar methods of early- and mid-century socialism aren't nearly as effective as one might have hoped. After all, the Nazis were defeated in 1945, 988 years short of their goal, and Bolshevism failed at the end of its allotted threescore and ten. The lessons of the totalitarian epoch seem obvious: If there is going to be power concentrated in the hands of a few revolutionaries, it will have to be gathered and held in a different way. Tyranny by force is inefficient. More efficient by far is for people to tyrannize themselves and each other, for them to participate willingly, even joyfully, in their own oppression. The locus of power can then be moved away from the State, and oppression by the State becomes unnecessary. The governmental clown show can continue, but the real action will be somewhere else.

Enter cultural Marxism, critical theory, political correctness, identity politics, and the New Left, which, at age sixty or so, is actually pretty long in the tooth by now. Despite the fact that their repast has gone bad and now stinks to high heaven, a lot of Marx, Freud, and Gramsci inspired revolutionaries have gone to the buffet table of leftism/socialism/statism and come away with a big heapin' helpin' of that kind of thing. But how well is that going to work? These revolutionaries might tear each other apart over real or perceived transgressions, but that's their own fight. They're really just sitting at the kid's table--at a highchair actually, because, boy, are they infantile. The real work is being done by a new kind of revolutionary. Like Lenin and O'Brien, these new revolutionaries are serious, driven, ambitious, arrogant. They are confident and ruthless in the extreme. They are also in control of a new technology that puts O'Brien, Ingsoc, Oceania, and all of their trappings to shame. Orwell had inklings of them and it when he wrote:

"Part of the reason for this was that in the past no government had the power to keep its citizens under constant surveillance. [. . .] With the development of television, and the technical advance which made it possible to receive and transmit simultaneously on the same instrument, private life came to an end. Every citizen [. . .] could be kept under the eyes of the police and in the sound of official propaganda, with all other channels of communication closed. The possibility of enforcing not only complete obedience to the will of the State, but complete uniformity of opinion on all subjects, now existed for the first time." (p. 170)

Substitute the phrases "digital technology" or "social media" or "the Internet" or "smartphones" or "search engines" or "Internet commerce" or maybe all of them together plus some more--substitute all of these phrases for "television" and you approach our current situation.

* * *

O'Brien says: "But we create human nature. Men are infinitely malleable." Winston Smith resists that idea, but his resistance is weak, for he is a non-believer, or, more accurately, he doesn't see the truth, which is that human nature is in no way malleable because it has not been made by human beings. Put another way, nothing that is made by God is alterable by human beings, and nothing made by human beings out of relationship with God and our true nature can be made permanent. In his naïveté, O'Brien believes something different. But that was seventy years ago. The new kind of revolutionary of which I speak may have recognized the same kind of shortcomings that the old kind has, namely, that mid-century methods don't work very well--and that they were probably never going to work very well. Like I've said, if you're going to gather power to yourself, you can't do it very easily or efficiently by force, a thing the old revolutionaries have come to understand. You also can't do it by trying to change human nature, just as the new revolutionaries, looking at the past failures of O'Brien and his kind, now seem to understand . . .

And that's why you must change what it is to be human.

Human beings are a pesky problem if you're an aspiring tyrant. How are you supposed to handle them with all of their desires to be free and unruly? To think and speak and act as they please? To be unpredictable, un-programable, un-machinelike? To think about and act on something other than your project? To love and be loyal to somebody--anybody--rather than you? You can't change their nature. You have already figured out that part of the problem. What to do? What to do?

"I've got!" cries your minion, an underpaid guest worker who is living on a shoestring in the interstices of your digital-elitist enclave. "We will make them into something other than human!"

And so you get to work. The great thing is that you have so many options--or so you think. You can genetically reengineer them. You can turn them into cyborgs or zombies drugged up on some kind of digital smack. You can upload their consciences into computer servers or android bodies. You can feed them digital pablum and harvest their data, thereby reducing them to inert generators of information, kind of like in The Matrix. (In We, everyone volunteers or is forced to undergo an operation to get rid of his or her sense of "fancy.") Most promising of all, you can build the greatest AI the universe will ever know and do something with it. You don't know what it will be just yet, but one way or another, you're going to use it to outsmart God, Man, and all of Creation. You will make all of them superfluous, obsolete. Human beings will be gone forever from the universe. At last your problem is solved. At last you can rest, like Thanos on his idyllic planet, happy in the knowledge that the universe is exactly as you wish it to be.

* * *

The overarching goal, I think, is to establish a transhumanist society, a posthuman universe, an attempted eradication of the pesky problem of an unchanging and uncooperative humanity. If only we can succeed in this, we will have, as O'Brien and our new tech masters promise, immortality. Not individual immortality, mind you, but digital-collective immortality. (O'Brien's promise is political-collective or Party-collective immortality.) That's still immortality, right? This is all still doable, right? And not just doable but desirable, right?

Well, wrong, I think. We have tried all of this before. It seems to be a part of human nature--to feel that we are or ought to be gods, that we can make of ourselves something other than what we are, that we can escape from time and achieve immortality, all on our own and under our own power. Transhumanism and posthumanism seem to be just the latest iterations of these age-old desires. If I'm right, they, too, are doomed to failure. In biblical times, reaching for heaven and godhood, we set about building the Tower of Babel. We all know how that turned out. Anyway, if you doubt that the masters of digital information and communications are working on this problem, watch a video called "The Selfish Ledger" on the website The Verge, dated May 17, 2018, and accessible by clicking here (for now). Assuming it's real and not just a spoof or a sophisticated bit of trolling, it is the most perfect horror movie ever made.

As I have said before, we as human beings have never stayed our hands: everything that we have imagined--and many things we have not yet imagined--we will do. And so we will have a new Grand Inquisitor, a new Benefactor, a new Lenin, a new O'Brien for our new age, and once unleashed, perfect horrors will tear across the world like a storm.

A French-language edition issued by Le Livre de Poche in 1969 with cover art by Michel Siméon (1920-1998).

Original text copyright 2020, 2023 Terence E. Hanley