Millennial Monsters

When it became clear how momentous a change was going to follow in the wake of the internet, and after that, how much the widespread use of the smartphone was going to transform our lives, speculation immediately began as to how the generation raised with these things would differ from the generations that had seen them come into existence.

I recently had occasion to think about how horror stories in particular have changed in the new, online world. Over the last couple of years, I’ve spent enough time watching YouTube ARG’s, reading creepypasta, watching movies, and listening to the right podcasts to notice a few patterns emerging.

Before I point these out, let me give a few caveats: I’m way more of a general speculative fiction guy than a horror guy. I also remember broadcast TV and thinking dialup was cutting edge. I am therefore a bit of an outsider when it comes to both horror and the smartphone generation, so take this with a grain of salt. This is an essay in the old sense of the word—a casual attempt to think through a topic, rather the thoroughly researched and well-cited work of an expert.

That said, I’ve noticed three things that stand out about the ghosts and monsters conjured up by horror fans and writers since the rise of the internet. The first has to do with their character, and the next two with different aspects of their appearance.

First off, millennial monsters seem, by and large, to be loners. Slender Man, the hat man, the rake, most shadow people, many sightings of black-eyed kids—all of these are lonesome creatures, often dwelling in isolated locations. Before the internet, this was certainly a category of horror creature. However, zombie hordes, or large packs of werewolves, or massive cults, or covens of vampires and witches seemed to be a bigger part of the genre. On YouTube and in creepypasta, the creatures of our nightmares all seem to be individual, anti-social monsters.

Second, a major change seems to have occurred in the appearance of popular monsters. In the 80’s, it seemed like the majority of scary critters you might run into were big and hairy. They were often shaggy, wild-looking, and above all, physically imposing. Slender Man, the rake, and their relatives, on the other hand, are lean and hairless, and often pale. Their appearance is frightening not due to size or weight, not because they are bestial, but because they look wrong. They are unearthly, and unsettling. They are distorted.

Third, the way they appear unsettling is particularly interesting. I used the word “distorted” because I think it’s particularly apt. Slender Man is not too terribly unsettling, except that he’s been stretched like a piece of gum far beyond what is normal for any human being. The rake is bent until he can go onto all fours, and thin as well. Dear David, of recent Twitter fame, has a bent-in head. Werewolves are not distorted—they are often anatomically believable, as long as you don’t catch them mid-transformation. Zombies are rotten, but they’re not oddly shaped. If anything, vampires are often even more physically perfect than the rest of us.

Before I go on to speculate about these three trends, it would be good to make a qualification. Millennials can and do, of course, watch older horror movies and read Stephen King and dress up as zombies and vampires and werewolves. There is no unbreachable wall between pop culture before and after the internet. These are just tendencies, and that’s worth keeping in mind as I outline the truly speculative part of this below.

It has been observed of older generations that zombie movies do well during Republican presidencies, and vampires are more popular under Democrats. The thinking here is that the people are working out their fears of what they might become in the form of horror stories. Republicans are a mindlessly conformist mass of soulless corpses who want to eat your brains, and Democrats are parasitic sexual libertines out to exploit the working man. Or something like that.

Apply the same thinking to millennial monsters. In an age of smartphones and laptops we can all stay up to unreasonably late hours, living in a virtual world, without human contact. We isolate ourselves, from human contact and from sunlight. In the high-contrast world of bright screens in dark rooms, is it any wonder we see people in the shadows? Is it so strange that we fear pale, manlike creatures emerging from the darkness? The appearance of these creatures, and their isolation, matches things we fear about ourselves—what might we be becoming?

The world of social media adds another layer to this. In a time where so much of who we are is a performance, a cultivation of the right photos and the right statuses, the right comments and sharing the right posts, every bit of our identity is subject to technological manipulation. We distort our personality and our appearance to convey messages about where we belong and what we hold sacred, and do so far more consciously and constantly, and in a far more chaotically diverse context than ever before.

Slender Man is stretched and distorted because we are stretched and distorted. The rake is twisted as we are twisted, and the hat man is reducible to one distinct identifying marker just as we can easily become nothing more than a brand, hiding unknown intentions behind a meaningless profile pic or Twitter handle. Our monsters are no longer hairy and physically imposing because the most common threats to us today are not physical, but about identity and belonging. We no longer fear we or our neighbors will become beasts, but that they will become alien and unreadable and hostile.

There is undoubtedly a lot more to be said here. As I mentioned earlier, I’m no expert on horror, and there is no doubt that there is quite a lot of continuity between previous generations and this one. I did see the IT remake a week or two back, and seems at least as popular as the original. But I think these trends are noteworthy, and worth more exploration.

It also occurred to me, as I was considering these things a few days ago, that the things I’ve pointed out here—the appearance and isolated character of millennial monsters—is probably far more significant the technology through which our ghost stories are now communicated. Chat roulette monsters and found footage seem like little more than novelties, while the form of the monsters themselves carries actual weight.

At any rate, it will be fascinating to watch as the fears and folklore of the next generation develops.

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Magic as Spiritual Technology, Part One: The Making of a Grimoire

Even when I take a break from the History of Witchery, I seem to stumble across it by accident. A week or so ago, I found a magical text referenced by a theologian. More recently, I asked someone in the field of Forteana—the study of bigfoot, UFOs, and similarly weird topics—to recommend researchers worth following. Among his recommendations was purported author of the fabled Necronomicon.

The History of the Necronomicon

For those who are in the know, the preceding sentence should sound a bit like nonsense. For those who aren’t, the Necronomicon is supposed to be a fictional work, a grimoire invented by horror author H. P. Lovecraft in the early twenties for use in his stories. There should be no author of the Necronomicon because the book does not exist.

But the tale only begins with Lovecraft. In an effort to add realism to his work, he advised friends to incorporate references to the Necronomicon in their own work, and he in turn referenced their fictional grimoires in his stories. For the unwary reader, it might seem like all these seemingly unrelated authors were referring to a book that genuinely existed, like The Lesser Key of Solomon or the Corpus Hermeticum. By the sixties, college kids were in on the prank, sneaking forged cards into the catalogues of university libraries so that naïve parties might stumble across the reference and assume it was real.

These pranks were only the beginning. Although occult beliefs had never really died out in the West—they barely retreated—the late sixties saw a massive upsurge in the popularity, coinciding with a similar explosion of neopagan religions that had begun with Wicca in Britain in the fifties and had now crossed the channel. Grimoires were no longer the province of pulp horror fanatics, but prizes sought after by people who might actually put them to use. The time was ripe for hoaxes.

One particularly clever forgery was known as the Simon Necronomicon. Published in 1975, the book claims that it was stolen by unorthodox priest and smuggled into the hands of certain students of the occult in New York. There it was edited and published under the leadership of someone using the name “Simon,” who preferred to keep his real identity secret. But all this would have been just one more unbelievable story, if it were not for the fact that much of the contents of the Simon Necronomicon is actually authentic.

To understand what this means, you have to know what Simon was actually claiming. He did not say that everything Lovecraft wrote about the Necronomicon was true, and did not incorporate Lovecraft’s excerpts from the book into the work itself. Even Lovecraft’s infamous author, “the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred,” is not part of Simon’s work. There are no bald invocations of Lovecraftian gods or demons. The only thing that clearly links it to Lovecraft’s work is the title of the supposed manuscript—the Necronomicon.

Simon’s Necronomicon is accompanied by a long editorial preface making it clear that he finds the link to Lovecraft as astounding and unlikely as anyone else—but it is there all the same. He then dives deep into history, proposing tentative links between entities mentioned by Lovecraft and Sumerian and Babylonian deities. Perhaps, he suggests, Lovecraft was a sort of sensitive, open to the influence of forces that actual exist, despite his lack of belief in them. Or perhaps he did indeed encounter rumors and scraps from this work and incorporated them into his fiction. Perhaps his stories were not as fictional as he thought.

The text of the Necronomicon itself is taken from a multitude of Sumerian and Babylonian sources, authentic lore merely rearranged and given a new context as a grimoire. Spells are taken from actual hymns and invocations of these ancient Mesopotamian gods, with very little material actually invented. Very little is unknown to scholars of that region and era, and even less is familiar to fans of Lovecraft’s fiction. Other than the name, it comes across as a quite plausibly historical work.

Whether the work is authentic or not—and I remain highly skeptical—it was certainly accepted as a usable grimoire. The published copies sold out, and it was copied illegally and began to spread underground. Practitioners of magic used the spells written therein, and some even came to believe the things suggested in the preface. The Necronomicon had gone from fictional tome to real-world sacred object. Simon had conjured it into existence.

Simon Says

Simon did not disappear after the success of his book. He published again, and, with the advent of the internet, began to lurk in occult forums online. Though there has been much speculation as to his identity—including the suggestion that he might be Sandy Pearlman, author of Don’t Fear the Reaper—no conclusive cases have been made, and Simon has yet to out himself.

It was in the accusations against one particular man, the Fortean researcher I referred to earlier, that I discovered the link to an old interview of Simon from 2002 that originally appeared in Behutet Magazine. While this was interesting enough on its own, something leapt out at me which was particularly relevant to a theme I have been exploring in my History of Witchery posts: Simon repeatedly uses the phrase “spiritual technology” to describe the contents of his Necronomicon.

I have written before about the links between science and magic, how there is a spirit at the heart of both that unites them. Throughout history, pagan philosophers like Plato and Aristotle and Christian theologians like Augustine and Aquinas have asked us to look at the world outside ourselves, to find external standards for human behavior. Our desires, our appetites, ought to conform to objective realities about what is good for man. It is the way of the sorcerer and of the mad scientist to instead demand that the external world be made to conform to our appetites. Rather than demanding virtue, we demand that vice be without consequences. Rather than accepting the limits and position God has imposed upon us, we seek to fashion ourselves and our world after our own image. We seek power.

As C. S. Lewis pointed out in his own critique of science and magic, there is such a thing as true or noble science. Seeking to better understand the world is near the very heart of wisdom, and science of that kind should not be condemned. The science he was far more skeptical of, the kind that seemed so much like sorcery, was applied science—technology. There we learn to impose our will on the world without always considering why the world is the way it is, and what the consequences might be for ignoring it.

I could go on a long tirade, citing fictional morality plays like Frankenstein or Jurassic Park. I could point to real-world examples, such as the social effects of the wide availability of birth control or the ecological impact of industrial civilization. This is not the place for that, as the issue of technology and how we use it is a complicated one calling for a lot of nuance, and this is a post about how a horror writer’s world-building got out of hand.

But the link here is real and interesting. Simon does not view his magic as venerable traditions handed down from his ancestors, or liturgy appropriate to the worship of gods he holds sacred. It is technology. It is a tool. If you follow the procedures, you will get a result. That is very scientific way of looking at things, even if the science in question deals with the spiritual plane.

In the near future I hope to go over this interview in more detail, drawing out at length what Simon believes magic is and how it is to be used. For now, though, I will leave you with the suggestion that just as fiction can find itself bleeding over into reality, so the things we have labeled rational and superstitious are not so far apart as they seem. Rather than a holdover from the Dark Ages, interest in magic may be very modern indeed.

Magic and Authority

As Michael Bailey introduces the reader to the religious world of ancient polytheism, the modern reader is confronted with what may be a disorienting fact: they did not have a concept of magic in the same way we do. Worse, their explicitly religious and socially accepted rituals often looked very much like rituals they tended to condemn. Both involved sacrifices, set words or phrases that must be said, laws of purity that must be observed, calls on spiritual forces, and the expectation that these forces would grant the petitioner the desired outcome. But while we might be tempted to erase the distinction between ancient magic and ancient religion, Bailey insists that this would be too hasty:

“This is not to say that ancient peoples drew no distinctions between what in modern terms might be described as ‘the religious’ and ‘the magical.’ To claim that a Babylonian priest regarded the cultic rituals he performed as being akin to the charms employed by a rustic healer or the spells of some maleficent sorcerer would surely be false.” (pg. 13)

There was a very real distinction between licit and illicit rituals. But in order to understand that distinction, we have to enter into the mind of an ancient polytheist—and polytheism is exactly the significant term in this discussion.

“Most ancient peoples did not conceive of a single divine force animating the entire universe. Rather, they believed in numerous deities, both their own gods and also those of other peoples, which were usually held to be real and powerful, albeit foreign, entities. In addition to deities, most ancient cultures also believed in a wide range of lesser spiritual beings inhabiting the world.” (pg. 12)

Thus the world was alive with spiritual power, with conscious beings who wielded influence over men and nature. Some of these were powerful gods who presided over certain spheres of creation—sea gods and storm gods, love gods and death gods. Others were minor nymphs of a particular spring, or dryads connected to a specific tree. There were also, of course, tribal and civic gods—gods who were intimately connected to a city or a people, whose successes and failures were directly related to the successes and failures, or the anger and satisfaction, of the god in question.

“The Mesopotamian city-states were not simply physical territories united under a ruler; they were not purely human political units. Rather, they were essentially divine or supernatural (again, the modern terms fail to catch the full and real meaning). Amid the numerous deities recognized and worshiped by the ancient Mesopotamians, each city was typically linked to a particular patron god and his or her cult. Each was centered physically around a great temple complex in which resided the scribe-priests who represented a political and social as well as a spiritual elite. Each was ruled by a priest-king who derived his authority from the god he represented. Marduk, for example, was supereme in Babylon; Assyria was the land of the god Assur.” (pgs. 13-14)

What was true of Mesopotamian city-states was also true, with variations unique to the culture, of Greek city-states. The prosperity and even survival of the city was dependent on a right relationship with its patron gods or goddesses. There was therefore something nefarious about living in Athens, for example, while worshiping a Persian deity. It indicated a certain disloyalty to one’s community, and an attachment to another. Beyond its mere symbolic importance, however, it was also the ritual infidelity to the god, who might therefore be angered and take vengeance upon the city.

The distinction between conventional religion and condemned magic, then, is not so much the actions themselves as the forces the actions appealed to. Religion was what was done to approved deities in public places on behalf of the city, and magic was what was done to alternative gods in private on behalf of an individual.

“More central to the negative reputation that accrued around most practitioners of magical arts—whether actual magoi or homegrown agyrtai, manteis, or those called by other appellations—was the notion that their actions were private and secretive, as opposed to open and public. The civic cults of the Greek city-states operated to preserve the public welfare by maintaining proper relationships with the gods. The actions of private agents, even when they benefited those who contracted them, might serve to upset the overall harmony of the cosmos and the proper ordering of society. Ultimately, there seems to have been a clear sense in the ancient world that such power was dangerous in the hands of individuals who were unregulated and unsupervised by any official structures or institutions.” (pg. 18)

This was certainly true in Greece in Mesopotamia, and if anything, it was more true in Rome. Rome had a very strong notion of its divine destiny, a sort of pre-Christian notion of being a City on a Hill, shedding the light of justice throughout the world.

“Few ancient cultures had as clear a sense of possessing a divinely appointed destiny as did the Romans, and discerning that destiny in advance was very important to them. Superstitious divination, however, typically referred to non-Roman rites or personalized prophecy rather than the public rituals designed to determine and ensure the overall destiny of Rome.” (pg. 19)

If the gods had a plan for the Romans, it behooved the Romans to know that plan. Public divination was central to Roman religion, and central to the conduct of the Roman state. If we imagine someone reading entrails, gazing at patterns in smoke or shapes in mirrors, or casting lots, or any other divinatory activity, we are likely to imagine some sort of witch or sorcerer. For the Romans, that was likely a well-respected, high-class priest.

But if the future can be told, it’s not only the state that will want to know about it. Businessmen will want to know if their venture will be a successful one, and politicians will want to know what rivals to look out for. There will be parents hopefully divining the fates of their children, and paranoids or hypochondriacs worriedly seeking to avoid the next disaster. All these and more will doubtless make their way to skilled fortune tellers of one kind or another. What would the Romans think of them?

“Likewise, personalized prophecy was regarded as presenting a significant public danger for the Roman people. Since so much of Rome’s identity was caught up in a sense of its own trajectory to future greatness, private revelations (assumedly false or at least misleading ones) that might contradict or call into question Rome’s public destiny could corrupt the will of the citizenry.” (pg. 19-20)

Private divination was an essentially anti-social practice. A good Roman was supposed to worry about the future only insofar as it coincided with the future of the Roman people. He was not to go off seeking his own independent fortune, acting in order to further interests which might diverge significantly from the Republic as a whole. Similar things could be said for other magical or “superstitious” practices, “superstitio” being the Latin word for this unauthorized divination.

“Yet the meaning of superstition was becoming broader. Perhaps because divinatory practices were so central to the Roman public cults, superstitio gradually came to imply all forms of false or non-Roman rites. It could be applied to foreign cults, which Roman authorities typically tolerated, although they also feared that these cults would somehow sap the virtue of Roman citizens… In addition, superstitio could be applied to the improper observance of Roman cultic practices. In particular, it implied excessive observance, such as the obsessive devotions that some parents apparently paid in order to ensure that their children would not suffer untimely deaths.” (pg. 20)

Throughout the ancient cultures that stood at the roots of Western Civilization, the distinction between magic or superstition and legitimate religious practice boiled down to one central concern—are you appealing to the right gods, and are you doing so in the right way? This is, at its base, a question of authority. That is, what god or spirit has legitimate authority over the one seeking help, and over the area of life in which he seeks help? If you ignore the god who has a claim over you and turn instead to a foreign god, or a spirit within your pantheon other than your people’s patron, you are likely committing some form of magic or sorcery.

Take this rubric and apply it to a distinctly Christian context. Both Aaron and Pharaoh’s priests were able to transform staffs into snakes. Witches like the one at Endor were condemned for speaking to the dead, but Christ himself spoke to Moses and Elijah on the Mount of Transfiguration. Indeed, several of Christ’s miraculous healings might be mistaken for magical practice, if anyone else had done them. Consider his use of phrases like “Talitha cumi,” or the incorporation of mud and spit to heal when the Gospels are clear that he did not even need to touch someone to heal them. What separates illicit magic from legitimate use of divinely granted power?

The answer lies in the question itself: whether or not the power is indeed divinely granted. For most of Christian history, magic has been understood as functioning through the help, whether with the practitioner’s knowledge or otherwise, of demons. In the early days of the Christian Church in particular, this had to do with the way Christian authorities declared pagan gods to be lying, unclean spirits. Rites that the Romans or Greeks or Egyptians would have considered legitimate, honest worship, sacrifice, or prayer were now considered witchcraft.

This is not essentially different than the distinction the ancients made. It would be easy, then, to fall into the mistake of declaring the use of the labels “magic” or “superstition” to be merely examples of ancient chauvinism. This would be a mistake.

As Bailey points out, neither the Mesopotamian, nor the Greeks, nor the Romans necessarily objected to foreigners worshiping foreign gods. After all, in a polytheistic universe one people’s gods need not necessarily have any authority over another’s. Thus Romans allowed the cult of Isis to continue in Egypt, though they looked askance at it when it crossed the Mediterranean. Likewise, they let the Jews continued to worship Yahweh, though the same worship imported to Rome itself, whether by Jews themselves or the growing sect of Christians, was a cause for concern.

Judaism and Christianity, however, are monotheistic religions. In a polytheistic context, it might be right to let each tribe have its god, or each rock or tree or river its spirit. In a monotheistic context, however, the one God has authority over all Creation. Therefore any sort of rite designed to praise or to invoke any spirit but the one God is illegitimate in more or less the same way a Roman appealing to a Babylonian god would have been seen as illegitimate or antisocial in Rome. Sorcery is, at its base, idolatry.

This is an interesting insight in itself, but it gets more interesting when you apply the principle to realms other than the hocus-pocus of the stereotypically supernatural. It is wrong to appeal to pagan gods or spirits or occult forces for help because God alone is Lord over life and death, over one’s fortune or safety, over the fertility of your crop or the success of your business dealings, over the lives one’s children or one’s ability to attract a mate. But pagan gods are not the only things we appeal to rather than God to solve these problems.

For quite some time, Western culture has been enamored with the possibilities new technology opens up. It has brought widespread health, better diets, more efficient transportation, and whole worlds of new entertainment. We enjoy a lifestyle our ancestors could only dream of. It is perhaps not unthinkable, then, that some should look for technology to advance our power even further.

Transhumanism is a movement that seeks to change what human beings are, to fundamentally alter our natures. It promises to grant us far greater intelligence and athletic ability, to cure genetic diseases and birth defects. It wishes to help humanity escape the human condition, perhaps including death. What if aging could be cured? What if consciousness could be downloaded and stored, transcending this prisons of flesh? Alchemy could not give us the elixir of life, but perhaps only because science was not yet sufficiently advanced.

For some, technology can become like a god, promising solutions to our most difficult problems, if only we are willing to go where it takes us, however strange and unnatural that place is. Technology has worked for long years to separate sexual intercourse from reproduction, and has become more or less able to separate sex from one’s chromosomes and anatomy at birth. Such things fundamentally change what it means to exist as a human being. And with advances in our ability to manipulate genetic code, or to perform great surgical feats, things like this may be only the beginning.

If sorcery is fundamentally a question of who we turn to for help, who we believe has the power to make our lives better, then far more of us have sorcerous hearts than actively engage in pagan rituals.

Passengers and Hope

I spent the last week in Kansas City, and had the good fortune to see the movie Passengers. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and came out of the theater feeling quite moved. I hardly expected that going in, not being especially taken by the trailers, and having had my expectations lowered by the mixed reviews. Seeing that my experience was so very different than many others’, I felt obligated to offer an explanation for just why I think Passengers was an objectively good movie. And I do think that. In fact, I’m about ready to call it one of my all-time favorites.

Keeping that in mind, this review will be spoilerific. If you have not seen it yet, go do so and come back. If you have, then forge ahead. Even if you aren’t convinced by what I have to say, I trust that some of it will at least serve as fodder for lively conversation.

That said, this monstrosity is about 4500 words long, and divided into four sections: Setting, Story, Characters, and Values. If you decide you want to read it in multiple sittings, try reading the first two and then the second two. Those chunks should be of roughly equal length.

Cheers,

David H.

 

Setting

Passengers is, if nothing else, a beautiful film. It is not set in the splash of stars and colorful planetary close-ups of Star Wars, but the vast emptiness of space as we know it—a realm of mystery, largely untouched by human civilization. That sense of the sheer immensity of the cosmos, the thrilling beauty and monstrous terror of something greater than any human being, is something we return to again and again. Most obviously we see it in the vertigo-inducing space walks, which are far quieter and more contemplative than the trailers we would have us believe. But we also see it in a thousand other places—in glimpses through ever-present windows and transparent roofs, in pools jutting over the emptiness, in losses of gravity that remind us that our presence here is unnatural and tenuously maintained. The atmosphere of a long voyage through the glittering, flaming, beclouded, and empty reaches of space makes the ride worth it.

Setting the voyage aside, the ship itself is a delight. At first it looks like the typical technological wonder of a thousand other utopian visions of the future. That trope starts to break down as we realize that the technology is surprisingly limited. Even before things start breaking down, we meet the computer’s frustrating inability to provide information it was not programmed with. The AI we meet both in Arthur, the robotic barkeep, and elsewhere is amusingly formulaic in its responses. The illusion of personality is not as thin as the old text adventure games, however, but far more familiar. The flaws of this ship are the same flaws we meet in smartphones with Siri and autocorrect—wonderful and useful, but prone to hilarious mistakes.

It’s that touch of the flaw, that consciousness of limitation, that makes the ship endearing. We see it faithfully carrying out its mission to the best of its abilities, but also fumble as it deals with the humanity of its passengers and its own slow breakdown. Over the course of the movie, the starship Avalon becomes as much a character as any of the humans on board.

Story

In the midst of the vast terror of space and the wonders and limitations of the Avalon, Passengers is a story well told. It begins with an accident, and that accident wakes up the first of our major characters—Chris Pratt’s Jim Preston.

Jim has a problem. He has awakened ninety years too soon, and there is no way to go back into hibernation. He will, barring some miracle, die alone on a ship filled with passengers. Luckily, Jim is a mechanical engineer, and he sets about trying to solve this problem. While a solution doesn’t present itself immediately, he is able to significantly improve his life by eating out in all the ship’s restaurants, racking up an enormous debt, and breaking into a high class suite with a basketball court and VR dance arena.

Over the course of his struggles with loneliness and attempt to get back to sleep, we get to know Jim well—from highs of childlike glee reminiscent of Home Alone, to the depths of near suicidal depression, staring into the abyss. We see his remarkable competence when it comes to tinkering with things, as well as his powerlessness when he finally comes to terms with his limitations. This first act of the film is a solid exercise in world and character building, brought to life by a gifted actor born for the lighthearted humor and dramatic intensity of the role.

But as we were all aware going in, this was not a Chris Pratt in space movie, but a Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence in space movie. The way that comes about is unexpected and powerful.

Jim has been alone for a year. (The way this movie marks time, by the way, is effective without being distracting, adding well to the tension and drama.) He looks even more hairy and unhinged than Tom Hanks in Cast Away, the childlike humor Chris Pratt usually brings to a movies meet with depths of loneliness and fear that generate all kinds of pity. And that pity becomes gut-wrenching when we see Jim confronted with an awful choice.

One of the thousands of passengers locked in the hibernation pods is Jennifer Lawrence’s Aurora, the sleeping beauty who captures Jim’s heart. In the depths of his misery, he sees her and begins to wonder what it would be like to have just one friend to mitigate the loneliness, to make the long wait for death on an empty ship more bearable.

Of course, Jim knows how indescribably cruel it would be to wake her up. It’s wrong, and he knows it, and he admits as much to Arthur on one of his regular trips to the ship’s bar. But the existential crisis that is his situation has brought him so low that he can’t put the idea out of his mind. He finds recordings of interviews with Aurora, learns about her, learns that she is a writer, and reads some of what she is written. He is captivated by her, and this only adds to the agony of loneliness. Guilt builds as he contemplates doing what he knows he should not, and shame is visible on his face as he finally gives in and wakes Aurora up.

The sequence that follows mirrors the first act in many ways. Aurora goes through many of the same things Jim did, searching for passengers and crew, attempting to break out, accepting her situation, and finally trying to make the most of it. We get to know her in much the same way as we did Jim, but instead of watching her fall into despair, we instead see her fall in love with the last man on earth, narrating the journey as she dictates her next book to a recording to device.

This love story is every bit as funny and charming as you would expect from these two actors, and the effect is only increased by their solitude on the ship. But all the while the knowledge of what Jim has done looms in the background. We know that these happy days cannot last, not once Aurora knows what the man she has come to love did to her.

When she finally does, the effect is devastating. Arthur, misunderstanding the situation, informs her, and she confronts Jim. He does not lie to her. He tells her exactly what he did, and that he knows it was wrong. The next portion of the movie is devoted to Aurora processing that betrayal, rejecting Jim as he tries to make amends, and attempting to find a new way of life on this long, lonely journey towards death.

Throughout the movie, malfunctions have been building in the background. Something is wrong with the ship, and it has only been getting worse. We are reminded of this regularly, but not so that it distracts from Jim and Aurora’s stories. We know it will have to be dealt with, but that’s an issue for later.

It turns out that later happens when Jim and Aurora’s relationship is as dead as can be. A ship malfunction wakes up Lawrence Fishburn’s Gus, a Chief Deck Officer and the only other human we see awake for the majority of the film. His presence serves two purposes: it forces Jim and Aurora to work together to prevent the ship from destroying itself, and gives them a third person to seek companionship and sympathy from, finally exposing Jim’s evil deed to a third party.

The presence of Gus works like the prologue to the final portions of the movie. We quickly learn that his pod’s malfunction has made him fatally ill. Within minutes of appearing on screen, Jim and Aurora have to watch him confront his own mortality and attempt to die with some shred of dignity. As he does die, he leaves Jim and Aurora with a wristband giving them all the access they will need in order to save the ship. He passes, and they launch his body into space in classic naval fashion.

Next Jim and Aurora are confronted with just how critical the problem with the ship is. If they don’t do something immediately, they will be confronted with a disaster that kills every passenger on board. Forced to work together, they track down the source of the problem and do their best to fix it. This leads them to a terrible choice.

In order to fix the ship, Jim has to go out into space and manually open a port, allowing the fiery exhaust of the reactor to vent into deep space. In all likelihood, he will not survive. When the moment of truth comes, Aurora is torn apart by the necessity of killing him. Without him, she will be utterly alone. More than that, despite what Jim did to her, she did once love him, and he is actively proving his love for her. When she discovers that he is still alive, and goes to recover him, she is relieved. The crisis seems to have healed a wound that time never could.

But Jim’s act of self-sacrifice and Aurora’s forgiveness towards him are immediately followed by one final decision that must be made. In the face of survival and the drama of their relationship, the fact that they will die alone before reaching their destination has faded into the background. It is brought abruptly into the foreground by Jim’s discovery that they can go back into hibernation—but only one of them. He offers it to Aurora. For a tense moment, the next scene lets us think that she might have accepted, but then she arrives. She has chosen to stay with Jim.

The final act of the film occurs 88 years later, when the Avalon is within a few months of its destination. The ship’s crew awakes to find a garden growing on one of the decks, an Edenic paradise that Jim and Aurora have crafted over a lifetime together. Aurora narrates, having left behind a record of their story.

This is well-structured storytelling, each act and scene laser-focused on a single purpose, all adding up to a coherent, moving narrative. The setting is wondrous, but the story itself shows fine craftsmanship.

Characters

If a character and a plot are not enough to make a movie good, Passengers rises to the challenge and also offers characters we are willing to spend two years alone in space with.

I have already mentioned Chris Pratt’s childish humor, and the depths of darkness he descends to as Jim. He is moved by sever guilt and shame, and by love as well. But besides these qualities, he is also the consummate tinkerer. Jim is always working on something, whether it’s gaining access to the luxury suite, trying to save the ship, or modifying space roombas. He crafts intricate models and fine jewelry, and expresses a desire to go somewhere where there is still something new to be built. He wants to build a house.

Aurora is just as fascinating a character, experiencing as wide a range of emotions artfully expressed by the talented Jennifer Lawrence. Like Jim, she has deep-seated desires that have shaped her character. She is a talented writer, as was her apparently famous father. He died when she was seventeen, and whatever other family she may have had is never mentioned. She seems to be the archetype of a millennial’s dream: talented, successful, and totally unencumbered by any attachments. She wants to do what no other writer has ever done: voyage to a colony and come back, carrying her story of a new world with her into a future far from the life she has known. This desire to experience adventures like her father, and to be widely read by virtue of her own talent and experience, sets her apart from Jim as a person in her own right—a person whose dreams he has snatched away.

Arthur, the ship’s barkeep and an extension of the Avalon’s personality is, as I indicated earlier, an endearing character. He is as competent as his programming allows, and smiling face and listening ear to the two passengers who want nothing more than company. Indeed, when what Jim has done is revealed, they undergo something of a custody battle for time spent with Arthur. But behind is welcoming manner and delightful foibles is the subtly unsettling nature of a robot who is just a bit too smart, just a bit too unfeeling, and increasingly broken.

The last character worth mentioning is Lawrence Fishburn’s Gus. The depth of the character is made all the more remarkable by the brief time we have with him. He comes onto the scene as a man with a mission, putting off his own health problems and refusing to get involved in the fight between Jim and Aurora. The ship is malfunctioning, and he must save the ship. He goes about it in a gruff and workmanlike manner, with lines that seem just a bit more blue collar than you expect coming from the man that played Morpheus.

When Aurora does finally force him to comment on Jim’s sin, he refuses to indulge her bitterness while also refusing to exonerate the Jim for what he did: “A drowning man will always try to drag you down with him. It ain’t right, but he’s drowning.” This simple, folksy wisdom, a recognition of human frailty, paints Gus as a man of insight, if not the most warm and cuddly guy imaginable. Soon after, he is confronted with his own imminent death. He dresses up and sits gazing out the window into space. Ever mindful of his duty, he passes on the wristband giving them access to the whole ship. He tells them to save it, and to take care of each other. Then he dies, leaning over on Jim as he does. That very human, oddly childlike gesture seems to illustrate just how small we all are in the face of death.

This is a movie with a tiny cast of characters, but they are portrayed with a depth far beyond what most movies offer.

Values

The setting, story, and characters are enough to make Passengers worth watching, but the film is far more than the action/rom-com sci-fi flick the trailers seemed to offer. It’s a meditation on death, the meaning of life and relationships, and the value of legacy.

Film critics I respect have criticized Passengers for its disturbing gender politics. Boy sees girl, boy wants girl, boy ruins girl’s life, boy gets away with it, and girl goes along with it. If this were done unconsciously, I might agree with them, but the movie is all too aware of just how wrong what Jim did is. He knows it, and tears himself apart up until the moment of weakness where he does it. It’s just behind his eyes throughout their relationship, and he confesses it freely when Aurora confronts him. Aurora’s devastation is magnificently illustrated, at least as haunting as Jim’s earlier loneliness. When Gus is brought in, he does not deny that what Jim did was as wrong as wrong can be. He only says that it’s what drowning men do.

And that’s the key. It’s what drowning men do. In the midst of a crusade for a just society, our culture has tendency to treat humans as if they are morally perfectible. We can always do what’s right, at least with regards to the big things, if we only tried hard enough, if we were only properly educated, if society were only set up in the right way. Wrong is wrong; it shouldn’t happen and people shouldn’t get away with it.

But Passengers seems to question this assumption. There is another philosophy of humanity, a very old one, but often neglected in our generation. It’s the belief that people are morally flawed. We are all, to put it in Christian terms, sinners. Of course we shouldn’t do certain things, but that’s not the world we live in. The fact is that human beings do what’s wrong, and nothing we do is going to change that.

Jim woke Aurora. It wasn’t right, it wasn’t excusable, but it’s what he did. There’s no getting around that, no erasing the past, and no erasing his sin. As Gus said, “A drowning man will always try to drag you down with him. It ain’t right, but he’s drowning.”

In our search for justice, forgiveness is often understood as telling the victim to get over it, as telling the victimizer that what they did was okay. That’s not what’s going on in this movie. Passengers is deeply aware of the vileness of what Jim did. But it suggests that perhaps this is the world we live in, and we can’t do anything to change it. Our anger may be justified, but it fixes nothing. If we want to go on living, if we want to get past our hurt, sometimes we have to do something just a bit more than human. Sometimes we have to forgive the unforgivable.

I am obviously biased here. I am religiously predisposed both to believe that sin is a fact of life, the sort of thing all humans do. That goes with another religious predisposition to believe that the unforgivable ought to be forgiven. That is asking a lot. Indeed, it may be asking more than may be humanly possible. But if sin really is a fact of the human condition, it may be the only way we can learn to live together.

Regardless of whether you agree with this angle on sin and forgiveness, the very fact that it’s an uncommon view makes this a movie worth watching, chewing on, and having conversations about.

But the interesting values portrayed in this movie don’t stop with that troubling issue of forgiveness. There is also a surprising movement from seeking personal fulfilment to building relationships.

When the movie starts, Jim is alone, and the movie is simply about his self-interest, his survival. When he accepts his fate, he moves on to all sorts of self-indulgence. This culminates in his waking of Aurora, a clear act of self-interest trumping love for others.

Aurora, similarly, begins in a way of life that is individually driven, atomistic. She leaves behind all her friends and the life she knew to pursue her career goals. One friend in particular gives her a weeping, heartfelt farewell that highlights the degree to which she is declaring her independence from other people. When she reaches the other world, and has experienced it, she plans on turning around and coming right back, cutting herself off from any relationships she has built there.

Over the course of the movie, both Jim and Aurora are confronted with their own self-centered individualism. With death and loneliness staring them in the face, they come to realize that they need other people, and that they are morally obligated to love other people. Love, not necessarily in the romantic sense, but in the sense of caring for another person, going out of one’s way to respect them, to protect them, and even to improve their life.

Others found the ending of the movie off-putting. Jim and Aurora didn’t get back into hibernation, didn’t solve that original problem and live to reach the colony. Doesn’t that mean they lost? But I would suggest that this is the entire point.

In today’s world of constant advertisement, of easy wish-fulfilment, of instant gratification, fast food, streaming entertainment, and endless information at our fingertips, we have come to view ourselves as consumers, and the world as a product. We are individuals who have desires that must be fulfilled, and the world exists to fulfil them. Jim wants a new world in which to build things. He should get it. Aurora wants to have adventures and to write things people will read. She should get it.

But in Passengers, this is exactly what doesn’t happen. Given the chance at individual fulfilment, at erasing what Jim has done and going on to fulfil her dreams, she chooses not to. To those of us raised in an individualistic, consumerist society, this feels wrong. It feels insane. Doesn’t she realize that life will be so much better on the other side of hibernation? Of course she does. And she rejects it.

Again, this could be read as bad gender politics, and if the movie was less self-aware, I might buy that. But I don’t think that’s what’s going on.

Over the course of the movie we have been repeatedly confronted with the vast emptiness of space, the fragile nature of human life in that void, the fragile nature of relationships involving flawed human beings. We have seen the horror of loneliness, been confronted with the inevitability of death, the shortness of our own brief lives.

If Aurora goes back to sleep, we know what that will do to Jim. More pointedly, Aurora knows. Aurora also knows the value of relationships, knows what that means because she has been threatened with death, offered the relationship that mitigated that pain, and then had it ripped from her in an unthinkable betrayal. Aurora also looks back to her father, looks back to the friends she has left behind, and we know that even in a life where there were other human beings, Aurora was lonely.

In Aurora’s choice, we are not being told that the guy should always get the girl. In Aurora’s choice, we are being told that relationships matter more than personal fulfilment. We are being told that the most important things in life are not our dreams or desires, but other people. We depend on them for survival, but they are also, as Jim came to realize early on, what makes survival worth it.

This realization comes about only when the characters are confronted by mortality. If the lesson stopped there, that would be more than enough. But it doesn’t.

While Jim and Aurora are still together, he asks her who she is writing for, if not for people she knows. At that point, it doesn’t matter who. She just wants to be read. But later on, when she comes to grips with the fact that she will die before anyone sees what she reads, she begins to speak of posterity. She is not writing for a future fame she will personally get to enjoy, but to leave something to future generations. She is leaving a legacy.

In the end, having chosen to stay with Jim, that’s exactly what she has done. Her writing was not for personal glory, and it wasn’t just for Jim. She passed on her story the passengers who would awake long after they were gone. She left a legacy beyond death.

Just like the decision to stay with Jim, this a vaguely off-putting idea in our society. Again, we are often so radically individualistic, so focused on our own desires, that the idea that we would plant something and never live to see the harvest is all but unthinkable. Why do something if you won’t derive enjoyment from it?

This idea is not present only in Aurora’s writing, but also in Gus looking past his own death to the good of Aurora and Jim, and the good of the ship. It is present in Jim and Aurora risking their lives to fix the ship, and to save one another when self-interest cries out against it. Throughout the movie we are confronted with death, and throughout the movie we are asked to look beyond it, to look to a future we will not live to enjoy. In this day and age, that’s a remarkable thing to do.

Together these three values of forgiveness, relationship, and legacy, all of which trump individual fulfilment, combine to create something far more wonderful: hope.

From the beginning of the movie, Jim is a tinkerer. He takes the world around him and wants to make it something more. When Aurora comes along, he is a given a new direction for his efforts. He creates a robot to communicate with her, he builds a model and a ring, and he plants a tree. He is fundamentally a builder, someone who wants to create something that will improve not only his own life, but the life of others.

In the final scene, we see the results of this mentality. In their years together, Jim and Aurora built a garden in the main concourse, a green world filled with trees and birds and robots pulling vegetables out of the earth. In the midst of it all is a house, the house Jim wanted to build, the something new that there was no room for back in the old world. Jim and Aurora did not survive, but they built something worth having.

And that’s the true value of Passengers. It’s not just the story of Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence in space. It’s not just a rom-com, a sci-fi action flick, or even an interpersonal drama. It’s a story about how civilizations are built. In the beginning there were only two people staring death in the face. By the end there is a garden, a home, and a story for the future. Forgiveness, self-sacrifice, and a mind tilted towards legacy—these are the values of hope, and hope is what creates beauty.

After the year we just had, I can think of nothing more needful.

The Time Machine and the Myth of Progress

The Myth of Progress

“Progress” is a word filled to bursting with meaning. It conjures up the idea of forward motion in time, but not just idle motion. Progress means improvement; it means striving towards a goal. While this may mean inching along towards the completion of a task, or towards victory in a video game, it can also refer to entire societies. Cultures progress from an undesirable past towards a desirable future, from barbarism to civilization. Attached to that shade of meaning are ideas of movement from authoritarianism to freedom, from inequality to egalitarianism, from injustice to justice, and from want to plenty. Progress is good, in a way that has moral connotations.

In an odd historical quirk, this progressive social and political outlook was coming into vogue at about the same time as Darwin’s theory of evolution was becoming well entrenched in the scientific establishment, and taking the popular imagination by storm. Just as technology, democracy, and scientific exploration seemed to urge us forward into a brighter future, we were greeted with a mental picture of life evolving from slime, to primitive creatures, to reptiles, to rodent-like mammals, then to primates, and finally into man. Not only did society seem to progress, so did biological life itself. And, holding these two parallel narratives at the same time, progress took on an aura of inevitability.

While it is not the purpose of this project to investigate how these things came to be, it is worth pointing out just how startlingly new this perspective was. Classical philosophy as well as most Christian theology up to that point were based on the assumption of an unchanging natural order. The Creator had designed all things in particular ways, for particular purposes. For things to alter their innate natures was not progress in any sense, but a twisting, a perversion—unnatural. Certainly a great deal of freedom existed for things acting in accordance with their nature, but to actually deviate from one’s nature was not freedom, but self-destruction.

It seems odd to call this classical view “conservative.” It may often demand that things change when the unnatural has become the norm. However, in contrast to the progressive narrative of continuous change, of constant movement, it certainly merits that label. In a very real sense, it is the philosophy which believes there are things worth conserving—that sitting still does not always mean stagnation. Of course, this only makes sense in contrast to progressivism. In other contexts, such philosophical views might call for another name entirely.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, these twin notions of social progress and biological evolution were very much on the public’s midn. As this new philosophy arose, H. G. Wells was quick to take threads from it and weave them into a haunting little myth called The Time Machine. As it frequently does, the plot devices of science fiction allowed an able author to explore deep philosophical issues. In particular, Wells illuminated the gulf between the world that biological evolution implied, and the world progressivism hoped for.

The Time Machine

As in The Island of Doctor Moreau, our protagonist is a scientist. When the story begins, we observe him at a dinner party, explaining to fellow-scientists and other interested parties that time is merely another dimension, and sufficiently advanced technology should enable us to move through that dimension as easily as we control our movements through the other three. He declares that he has built a machine capable of doing this, and in a week’s time appears at a second dinner party, where he recounts his journey.

The Time Traveler’s first journey takes him some eight hundred thousand years into the future, to a world that would be perfectly at home in an episode of Star Trek’s original series. The paradisiacal landscape, drastically changed by the passage of time and changing climate from the land the Traveler called home, is inhabited by a race of small people. The two sexes of this miniature race are hardly distinguishable, and neither is imbued with a great deal of strength or cunning. Though clearly adults, they possess a childlike quality, and enjoy a carefree existence. Over the course of the book, the Time Traveler forms a series of theories about how mankind has evolved into these gentle creatures, who call themselves “Eloi.”

At first, he is quite surprised by them. They seem rather foolish, and though they live in magnificent, advanced buildings, they seem incapable of maintaining them, and entirely devoid of general curiosity. These are hardly the advanced, highly evolved humans he expected to meet.

‘It seemed to me that I had happened upon humanity upon the wane. The ruddy sunset set me thinking of the sunset of mankind. For the first time I began to realize an odd consequence of the social effort in which we are at present engaged. And yet, come to think, it is a logical consequence enough. Strength is the outcome of need; security sets a premium on feebleness. The work of ameliorating the conditions of life—the true civilizing process that makes life more and more secure—had gone steadily on to a climax. One triumph of a united humanity over Nature had followed another. Things that are now mere dreams had become projects deliberately put in hand and carried forward. And the harvest was what I saw!’

The Time Traveler had expected humanity to progress into a communist utopia wherein complete mastery over creation would enable mankind to live a life of ease and comfort. But a life of ease and comfort does not call for strength or wit. All those great survival instincts of man, unused in a world of total security, had atrophied. In its old age, the human race had become feeble.

Already this reasonable and seemingly obvious deduction has disabused our protagonist of traditional notions of progress. Successful progress is not necessarily permanent, and evolution need not always follow a forward path. This theory is itself put to the test not long after, however, when the Time Machine goes missing. The Traveler is now stranded in that distant era, with no clear way of escape. He had hoped to find a society of people more advanced than himself, and now he is trapped in a world of particularly uninspired, unintelligent children.

It soon becomes clear that the thieves are a second race descended from what was once humanity. These creatures are monstrous and apelike, dwelling deep in the underground darkness. Pursing them into their labyrinthine tunnels, he discovers all the machinery which must have once enabled them to build the advanced structures on the planet’s surface. Confronted with these facts, he forms a new theory.

Rather than class distinctions passing away with the dawn of a new communist utopia, what if they only deepened? The upper classes led a progressively easier existence on the surface, while the working classes labored deep underground. This radical difference in lifestyles, which he notes already exists to some extent in his own industrial age, split the species in two over the passing eons, the master race becoming weak and pampered as the slave race become bestial.

Again, the idea of perpetual forward progress is undermined. Though technology may have advanced for some unknown length of time, it eventually failed as neither the manual labor nor the pampered beneficiaries of their work remembered quite how to maintain or operate the machinery. Furthermore, society itself had never really improved, clinging always to the same old injustices that had plagued humanity throughout its existence.

Finally, not long after, the Time Traveler discovers the true relationship of the subterranean Morlocks to the terrestrial Eloi. At some point in the distant past, these apelike children of the underclasses had run out of food, and had begun to feast on the flesh of the Eloi. The surface-dwelling species does not exist independently of the troglodytes below. Having used fellow man as a resource, they have themselves become a resource.

Instinctively horrified by this revelation, he tries to rationalize it away. After all, there is more distance between the two species, and between himself and either of them, than there is between as civilized Briton of the nineteenth century and the cannibals of the same era. It is not true man-eating, merely one species raising another as livestock.

His attempt at rationalization fails. He cannot help but see this far end of humanity’s history as a descent back into barbarism. This is primarily because of his close friendship with one of the still humanlike Eloi—a female named Weena. She has been his constant companion for some time, and he has begun to think of the place in which he lives with her as home. As he contemplates the dark secrets lying beneath the earth, she dances innocently nearby. His sympathies are decidedly with the Eloi.

But this is no fairy tale, either for humanity or for Weena. On a journey back from his explorations of the Morlock’s dwellings, they are surrounded in the woods by the cave-men. The Time Traveler starts a fire to ward them off, which quickly grows out of control. In that conflagration, many of the Morlocks are lost, but so is Weena. He rushes back “home” alone.

Once there, he sees one of the strange buildings which were formerly locked lying open. Inside is his time machine. Clearly the Morlocks are using it as bait for him, but he doesn’t care. He rushes in, activates the machine, and leaps forward through time, barely escaping the grasp of the predatory Morlocks, and the horror and disappointment of the era in which he had so long been trapped.

As he moves forward, thirty million years into the future and beyond, no great race arises to replace fallen man. All the varied vegetation of that age degenerates into simple lichens, and enormous crabs chase giant butterflies across the earth—some of the last living species. Slowly the planet achieves tidal lock with the sun, one side eternally facing it, and one side facing the darkness of space. Life grows stranger, more primitive, and begins to die out. Not only has sentience faded away, not only is life passing from the earth, but in the swelling of the sun he foresees the death of the planet itself. Forward motion does not mean progress. It often means death.

Distressed, he rushes back, past the giant crustaceans, past the Eloi and Morlocks, back to his own era. There he stumbles into the dinner party, tells his story, and presents as evidence a few flowers Weena put in his pocket. Those two flowers, the narrator suggests, represent a single simple fact. This narrator contemplates that fact later, after the restless Time Traveler disappears once more, his destination unknown, never to return.

“And I have by me, for my comfort, two strange white flowers – shriveled now, and brown and flat and brittle – to witness that even when mind and strength had gone, gratitude and a mutual tenderness still lived on in the heart of men.”

Debunking the Myth of Progress

Survival of the fittest does not mean survival of the best, whether the strongest and smartest, or the kindest. As convenient as that narrative might be for progressives, it simply does not arise from the theory of evolution.

Survival of the fittest means the survival of those best equipped to pass on their genes in a given environment. This may certainly mean the strongest and the smartest, the most able to master their environment. A rabbit, however, passes on his genes just as effectively as any predator or intelligent omnivore in the same ecosystem. Simply breeding quickly is favored as much by evolution as anything we might call progress.

In fact, if a situation changes rapidly, the attributes which gave one species strength in the previous era might mean nothing in the era that follows it. A polar bear might be the apex predator of the Arctic, but would be hard-pressed to survive in the heat of the tropics. A frog is better equipped to survive in that environment. A giant squid survives well enough in the salty depths of the ocean, but in a freshwater inland lake, a minnow has a better chance of surviving. Or, to draw from another pop culture trope, it’s the cockroaches that would survive a nuclear war, not us.

If evolutionary theory is right, then the only thing that keeps us intelligent as a race is the fact that we have to be to survive. The same could be said of most any other attribute: our tendency to stick together, our drive to explore, our ability to train and push ourselves to the breaking point. The human species is tough, but take away the need to be tough, and we don’t need any of those attributes to live long enough to pass on our genes. The weak, the unintelligent, the lazy, all have just as much of a chance to pass on their genes as anyone else. Most progressives today would not, of course, have it any other way. But the long-term consequences of this are more or less what Wells predicts—the Eloi. Threats keep us sharp, whether the threat of predators, starvation, rivals, or bad weather. Remove those, and we turn into children.

Confronted with this fact, there is more than one way to react. Robert E. Howard sees this, and praises barbarism. If it takes living on the edge, under constant threat to be the best that we can be, then hang civilization. Let’s go back to the woods. There are times when Star Trek’s Captain Kirk seems to follow this same line. Better adventure, exploration, and risk with the virtues those things keep alive in us, than an easy life and slow decay.

Many progressives hope there is an alternative. Perhaps it is true that an easy life leads to the withering of the species, but what if we push beyond the limits of every other species? What if we grow advanced enough to control the course of our own evolution? Or what if we transcend organic life itself? These are the dreams of transhumanist, looking to a future when natural law no longer applies to us. If we choose that course, we must hope that such things are possible, that they are more than the pipe dream of a race unable to come to terms with its own mortality.

Then again, one could just ignore the facts, or at least regard our eventual demise as something unavoidable and so not worth avoiding. The values of progressivism become more important than the survival of the human species. Better we achieve a just, secure, and prosperous society and die of it, than ensure the survival of the species at the price of suffering for its weaker members. That certainly seems a noble path, but it can’t be said to derive its values from evolutionary theory. Then again, why should it? Progressives are under no obligation to buy evolutionary theory wholesale, much less derive their values from a biological theory.

And that is the point. The progressive narrative and evolutionary theory have little or nothing to do with one another. It is an accident of history that they arose at the same time, and an accident of history that they became allies against creationism and conservatism. One is concerned with the good of society and political theory, and the other is concerned with the structure and workings of the natural world. They originate from different sources, are concerned with different realms and different issues, and their implications for those who believe in them are quite separate. If one were to examine the mythologies that support and explain those two worldviews, the works included in such canons would differ widely, despite the occasional overlap.

Conservative, creationist Christians have a bad habit of lumping all our opponents in the public square into one category: you are either Christian or non-Christian. In practice, this categorization simply makes no sense. A Muslim and a militant atheist who subscribes to evolutionary theory may be much closer in spirit than either of them and the liberal progressive. Darwinism can be used to justify capitalism and racism as easily as it can socialism and multiculturalism. The world is far more complex than us vs. them.

It is true that on a deeper level, the blood of Christ makes us more separate from the world than any two groups in the world are from each other. But that does not mean that the differences between non-Christians are not real, and do not have consequences. If we want to be a light in a dark world, if we want to take an evangelical attitude towards the lost, we will not be successful by paying no attention to who they are, what they believe, and what they value. The distinctions there are important, and worth noting.

This is just one reason why it’s important to get outside the distinctly Christian ghettoes in pop culture. There are important things to learn about our neighbors, about the world we claim to want to bring the Gospel to. That’s the point of this project, and that’s why reading guys like H. G. Wells is valuable.

Doctor Moreau Meets Queer Theory

What makes humans human? Is it only our physical attributes, our bipedal stature, the sparsity of hair, and opposable thumbs? Is it more subtle than that, something in our mental capacity and our behavior? Or does humanity have any real essence at all? If slowly all his attributes were traded for a beast’s, would there ever actually be a single moment when the human became inhuman? And what if that experiment was reversed, if a beast were given the attributes of a man?

A Monstrous Vision

The Island of Doctor Moreau is one of H. G. Wells’ science fiction classics, and one that treads close to the realm of horror. It features a biologist by the name of Edward Prendick who finds himself adrift after surviving a shipwreck in the year 1887. He is picked up by a passing boat, bound for a small island somewhere in the southwestern Pacific. Reaching the island, the captain of the vessel abandons him there with the cargo its inhabitant had requested—a shipment of animals.

Once there, Prendick realizes that the inhabitant of the island, one Doctor Moreau, fled more civilized regions for this abandoned place due to the controversial nature of his experiments. Prendick is not quite sure what these are, but from the abundance of animals and their tortured screams which endure for hours, he assumes it must include vivisection. Vivisection—surgical experimentation on live animals—was a very controversial topic at the time, and would continue to be for decades to come.

But it was not the cruelty of these live dissections that were the true horror of the island. As Prendick explores what will likely be his home for the better part of the next year, he comes across a group of people who vaguely remind him of pigs. Not long after, he is pursued by something bestial that, when seen in the open, is in the shape of a human, and is capable of standing upright. The next day, convinced Moreau is experimenting on humans, he flees into the forest. There he encounters an entire tribe of Beast Folk, resembling apes, dogs, goats, and things far more indescribable. They are led by a strange creature known as the Sayer of the Law, who chants out a series of rules which remind the Beast Folk how human beings ought to act.

Suddenly, Moreau bursts into the camp, and Prendick goes running. He is determined to kill himself rather than allow Moreau to experiment on him. The doctor manages to talk him down, and explains that the Beast Folk are all animals, not men. He has taken the surgical sciences and tried to push them to their limits, using every imaginable operation to transform animals into men. Nor is he only altering their outward form—he is educating them to the point where they seek to act human. This is the meaning of the Sayer of the Law.

While this is decidedly horrifying, it does ease Prendick’s fears for his own life. He settles back in with Moreau and his assistant, biding his time until a ship comes along that is willing to offer him passage back to the civilized world. Before this happens, however, a series of misfortunes rock the island.

First, one of the Beast Folk is found to be breaking the Law. Rather than allowing himself to be captured and further modified by Moreau, he forces the men and animals to hunt him in a wild chase across the island. Prendick kills him, but the men suspect he is not the only one breaking the Law. Soon another rebellious man-beast kills Moreau, and not long after his assistant is also murdered. The humans’ dwelling places also goes up in flames, leaving Prendick alone on the island with the Beast Folk.

As the months pass, he lives among them. Initially, many were very human in appearance and behavior. But slowly each one begins acting more and more bestial, and their bodies slowly lose their human appearance. Moreau’s experiments could alter them for a time, but could not change them for good.

At last Prendick finds a way back to the human world. He is thought mad by many, and he has no proof of the fantastic tale he tells. Accepting this, he tries to settle back into civilized society. Yet something seems wrong. His experience on the island has forever changed his perspective.

My trouble took the strangest form. I could not persuade myself that the men and women I met were not also another Beast People, animals half wrought into the outward image of human souls, and that they would presently begin to revert,—to show first this bestial mark and then that. But I have confided my case to a strangely able man,—a man who had known Moreau, and seemed half to credit my story; a mental specialist,—and he has helped me mightily, though I do not expect that the terror of that island will ever altogether leave me. At most times it lies far in the back of my mind, a mere distant cloud, a memory, and a faint distrust; but there are times when the little cloud spreads until it obscures the whole sky. Then I look about me at my fellow-men; and I go in fear. I see faces, keen and bright; others dull or dangerous; others, unsteady, insincere,—none that have the calm authority of a reasonable soul. I feel as though the animal was surging up through them; that presently the degradation of the Islanders will be played over again on a larger scale. I know this is an illusion; that these seeming men and women about me are indeed men and women,—men and women for ever, perfectly reasonable creatures, full of human desires and tender solicitude, emancipated from instinct and the slaves of no fantastic Law,—beings altogether different from the Beast Folk. Yet I shrink from them, from their curious glances, their inquiries and assistance, and long to be away from them and alone. For that reason I live near the broad free downland, and can escape thither when this shadow is over my soul; and very sweet is the empty downland then, under the wind-swept sky.

When I lived in London the horror was well-nigh insupportable. I could not get away from men: their voices came through windows; locked doors were flimsy safeguards. I would go out into the streets to fight with my delusion, and prowling women would mew after me; furtive, craving men glance jealously at me; weary, pale workers go coughing by me with tired eyes and eager paces, like wounded deer dripping blood; old people, bent and dull, pass murmuring to themselves; and, all unheeding, a ragged tail of gibing children. Then I would turn aside into some chapel,—and even there, such was my disturbance, it seemed that the preacher gibbered “Big Thinks,” even as the Ape-man had done; or into some library, and there the intent faces over the books seemed but patient creatures waiting for prey. Particularly nauseous were the blank, expressionless faces of people in trains and omnibuses; they seemed no more my fellow-creatures than dead bodies would be, so that I did not dare to travel unless I was assured of being alone. And even it seemed that I too was not a reasonable creature, but only an animal tormented with some strange disorder in its brain which sent it to wander alone, like a sheep stricken with gid.

Plasticity

H. G. Wells’ monstrous vision has inspired no less than six film adaptations, some of them successful enough, and others as disastrous as Moreau’s experiments. Sequels and reimaginings have also been written, and more than one song features lyrics drawn from the Law and the events of the story more generally.

Despite its success in popular culture, Wells did not originally conceive of the idea as pure fiction. In 1895, he wrote an article titled “The Limits of Individual Plasticity,” in which he speculated that it might be entirely possible to totally alter an animal’s physical form through surgical and chemical means, to such an extent that it could no longer be recognized as whatever species it might belong to in a genetic sense. He mulled over this idea for some time. A year later, he published The Island of Doctor Moreau, reworking the gist of the article into the titular doctor’s explanation to Prendick of his doings on that island.

This radical notion stands close to the very heart of scientific materialism. Classical metaphysics—first explicitly described by Plato and Aristotle, and maintained by both Christian and Islamic philosophers—holds that everything in creation has a nature essential to it. A human is not human by virtue only of his outward form, but there is some nonphysical aspect of his being which makes him human and not a hairless ape. Modern empirical science is skeptical of such claims, finding little or no evidence for some spiritual, or at least nonphysical, essence that defines a species.

If the materialist reading of metaphysics is right, then Moreau’s experiments should, theoretically be possible. If all that separates man from beast is chemical composition and the arrangement of tissues, then sufficiently advanced technology and methods should be able to transform one into another. Of course, it may require a great deal of work to achieve such a thing, and then you’re stuck looking a ManBearPig and asking what you got out of it. But, if you really wanted to, there’s no reason you couldn’t do so.

This is not just idle philosophical speculation, either. The question of essentialism is actually a pressing social issue. The same metaphysics which says that man is separate from the animals, and the animals from each other, also suggests that men and women are different. Gender essentialism is the belief that there are fixed spiritual and behavioral characteristics tied to whether one is biologically male or female. This is usually taken to imply that certain gender roles are natural and others are not, and that certain expressions of sexuality are natural while others are not.

Consider that wide gulf that separates materialist metaphysics from classical metaphysics. In the eyes of someone who holds to essentialism generally, and gender essentialism in particular, LGBT behavior is unnatural in a very similar way to what Moreau does. Boundaries are being crossed that ought not be crossed, the very nature of a person is being denied or altered. Whatever the motivations or the character of the person engaging in the behavior, the behavior itself is inherently transgressive.

Now flip that. In the eyes of a materialist, gender and sexuality are plastic. They are shaped and molded by social expectations, which evolve over time. With advances in science and technology, even a person’s anatomical sex can be altered. If those boundaries of gender and sexuality are so ephemeral, if they are subject only to the limits of the human imagination, then it is the person who holds to classical metaphysics that is monstrous. They seek to impose on others restrictions that are not themselves natural, not themselves a fixed element in the physical or social fabric of the universe. Such views appear prejudiced and oppressive, something that ought to be opposed.

Of course, not every materialist supports the LGBT movement, and not every person from a tradition that holds to classical metaphysics opposes it. It would, however, be surprising if we did not see some correlation between those belief systems and the cultural stances they suggest. Our beliefs about the nature of reality do, in fact, impact our politics and lifestyle.

It be a mistake not to mention the place of feminism in this discussion. The places of men and women in society are very much impacted by your views on essentialism. While essentialism can lead to a wide variety of relationships between the sexes, it does open the door to what is generally characterized as a more conservative view on gender roles. A materialist metaphysics, however, tends to open the door to much more radically feminist views. Cultures whose mythologies are inspired by these two different worldviews can be expected to look very different.

The Future of Humanity

While the question of plasticity is relevant to Millennials caught in the midst of the twenty-first century’s marriage wars, Wells would probably have found another implication far more interesting. If mankind is potentially subject to this degree of chemical and surgical modification, might scientists take the evolution of the human race into their own hands? Might they modify men to make them stronger, faster, tougher, and smarter? Might we accelerate our own progress and leap forward into utopia of supermen, impervious to the threats that once dogged our race?

In Wells’ own time, medical science was nowhere near advanced enough to bring this about. Human individuals could not be modified to such a great extent, and such modifications certainly could not be made to pass on to children. But the human race was conceived of essentially plastic, able to be molded. So scientists across the world, often backed by forward-thinking governments, sought to sterilize the unfit and, in some cases, promote the propagation of healthier bloodlines. Atrocities committed for the sake of human evolutionary progress have since earned eugenics a bad name, and rightfully so, but at the time it was considered a very progressive, humanistic enterprise.

While the molding of humanity through forced sterilization, restrictive marriage laws, and mass murder are largely a thing of the past, not everyone has given up hope of transforming humanity with the aid of advanced science. Transhumanism is a movement that seeks to use our advancing understanding of human biology and genetics to transition the species from its current state into a “posthuman” future. This posthuman ideal is envisioned to have capabilities so far beyond that of modern homo sapiens, that it could not be mistaken for the same species. While gene therapy certainly forms an element of this movement’s ambitions, they also embrace technologies that will merely push individuals beyond merely human boundaries.

Both the eugenics of yesteryear and today’s transhumanism look on the plasticity of the materialist metaphysic as essentially good news. While these things may push us out of our comfort zone as a species, they also point the way to a more promising path for our evolutionary future.

For Wells, however, at the beginning evolutionary naturalism’s heyday, these ideas still were still new and unsettling, sweeping aside things mankind once held certain. Behind the plastic veil of human flesh, he did not see the dawning of a superhuman future, but the dumb and snarling face of a beast, dressed in the trappings and taught to mimic the behavior of civilized man. Perhaps all our high technology and sophisticated cultures are merely a façade. Perhaps, he suggests, they merely conceal the Beast Folk that lie within.

 

 

 

 Post Script

In the coming weeks, I hope to touch on the idea of evolutionary progress in another of Wells’ works, The Time Machine, and to take a brief glimpse at the Planet of the Apes franchise. However, this particular theme of humanity, civilization, and our relationship to the beasts is a powerful one, and I plan on returning to it in further posts on Robert E. Howard’s Hyborian age and the stories of Conan the Barbarian, as well as Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Stay tuned as the journey continues.

Lovecraft’s Ancient Aliens

I

            Imagine a humanity alone in the universe. Imagine millions, even billions of years of evolution, struggling up from the slime that served as the cradle of some long-forgotten microbe, through countless eons of birth, reproduction, and death. Seas rise and fall. Continents shift. Meteors strike. Climate changes. Over the drifting generations we have ventured from sea to land, from land, perhaps, to the trees, and from the trees to the African savannah. We learned to hunt and gather. We learned to sow and reap. Cities were built, gods were worshipped, empires rose and fell. Through the long climb of progress, up through shifts in culture and technological innovations, we at last arrive at modern man. Our satellites sway in orbit, our telescopes look out at the stars. All our struggles, our pains and sorrows, the countless lost memories and forgotten lifetimes, and the end of every life, has all come to this.

And we are—utterly—alone.

All that we strove for, every empire and every nation, has ended in the dust. All of our great men have died, and though we know their works, they now know nothing. We have come as close to utopia as technology can take us, but still we fight, still we war, still we find reasons to suffer. All our gods, all the long history of great temples, enormous idols of stone, of gold, wreathed in diamonds and fine garments, of bloody sacrifice, all that has come to nothing. Even our gods were temporary, just another delusion on the road through history.

So stood the evolutionary naturalist in 1959. So stand many today. But in 1960, that all began to change. Before we go there, however, let us return for a moment to Lovecraft.

At the Mountains of Madness brought us a strange vision of the ages that lie behind us. Somewhere in the geologically distant past, a race of aliens came out of the stars. They landed here, and found this planet to their liking. So they began to seed it. They created every kind of life: animal, vegetable, and things in between. Among these countless experiments were our ape ancestors. It was their act of creation that brought us to life, their purposes that animated us. In a very real sense, they gave us meaning. And for Lovecraft, of course, that whole meaning was a cruel joke.

In another of Lovecraft’s stories, which will receive more attention later, he adds to this picture. The Call of Cthulhu tells of an alien being made of a material we are to primitive to understand. Its powers lie beyond our comprehension, as far beyond our abilities as the Elder Things were above our simian ancestors. This thing, by its power, by the long memories of our race, and by the traces of the civilization it once ruled, reaches out and leaves an indelible mark on our consciousness. Those who know him, worship him as a god. For, in comparison to us, what else could he be?

Lovecraft returns to this theme of gods and creators from beyond the stars time and again. His fiction constantly drives at the point that mankind is not at the center of universe, that far stranger things may be far greater than us. But when he wrote those stories, he could not have foreseen the effects his fiction would have. This idea, the idea of a race of godlike aliens that came to the Earth in ancient times and created either our species, or much of our culture, gripped the minds of generations.

II

            By 1959, Lovecraft’s writings, never mainstream, had fallen from what brief popularity they had enjoyed. Few had heard of that master of horror, and his stories held no great place in the public consciousness. There were two, however, who had heard of him.

Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier were two Frenchmen with a penchant for the occult. Both had lived through the Second World War. Bergier had actually participated in the French Resistance, and his work there may be an interesting tale in itself. They met in Paris, in 1954. In 1960, they published a collaboration that would change the world.

The Morning of the Magicians, as it is known in English, was a broad survey of a variety of conspiracy theories and occult topics. It was structured in an unconventional manner, and written in a personal tone. Louis and Jacques led their readers through a tour of issues as broad as ancient alchemists’ knowledge of the atom, the influence of German occultism on the Nazi party, and the Nazca lines. Most important of all, they made the suggestion that the Earth had hosted ancient civilizations founded by an alien race, and their influence had enormous effects on the development of humanity.

In the following year, they began to publish a magazine responsible for, among other things, bringing Lovecraft back into the cultural awareness of French audiences.

III

            The Morning of the Magicians cast forth a wide sphere of influence in the early sixties, reaching the UK in 1963, and the United States in 1964. The burgeoning counterculture took hold of many of the ideas it suggested, bringing an air of the esoteric into the movement. It was not the English translations which were most important, however, but the German edition of 1962. This found its way into the library of Swiss man by the name of Erich von Daniken.

In 1968, von Daniken published a book titled, “Chariots of the Gods?” His work drew heavily on that of Pauwels and Bergier, but had a tighter focus. It called the reader’s attention to artifacts throughout the world whose creation was far beyond the powers one might easily ascribe to primitive man. He pointed to the pyramids, to Stonehenge, to the Piri Reis map and the Nazca lines. He wrote of ancient myths, of legends handed down over centuries. He reminded his audience of the cargo cults of the South Pacific, how stone age tribes had mistaken modern sailors and airmen for gods. It all pointed towards one conclusion.

At some point in the past, beings from the stars had visited the Earth. They bestowed gifts on us: technology, information, and ideas that could have been gotten nowhere else. And we had remembered them as gods.

At first, the book had little impact outside of circles already interested in the paranormal. Even there it produced few notable shockwaves. But in 1973, von Daniken had a stroke of luck. His book was picked up by Alan Landsburg, who called on his friend, Rod Serling, of Twilight Zone fame, and got him to narrate a new documentary. In Search of Ancient Astronauts was broadcast to millions of American homes in 1973, introducing the ancient aliens hypothesis to mainstream pop culture. The documentary became a series, hosted Leonard Nimoy, which would help sustain a growing subculture of people interested in the paranormal.

IV

            This hypothesis, rooted, it would seem, in the fiction of Lovecraft, would go on to have a long life. The Stargate universe owes its existence to the idea, as do various Doctor Who plotlines, much of the X-Files mytharc, the attempted revival of Indiana Jones, Alien vs. Predator, and Prometheus. It also forms the plot of the often overlooked Hanger 18, a little gem my grandparents have in their movie library as a result of it being filmed in a town they spent a lot of years in. It’s worth watching, and rumor has it there’s a MST3K episode of it out there.

The idea not only impacted the world of fiction, but also found a home in many new religious movements. New Age beliefs have always looked to the stars, hoping for enlightenment, or interstellar saviors. While not every UFO religion can be credited to von Daniken’s influence, his work certainly helped create the culture in which such ideas were thinkable.

Return again to that lonely evolutionary naturalist. Now he looks out at the stars and can see more than empty space. He sees the houses of his neighbors, perhaps even the long-forgotten home of our race. Looking back at the gods of our past, he is no longer disillusioned. Instead, he is inspired, for in those gods he sees friendly visitors, or distant relations from a far nobler stock than the ape-men he once called his ancestors.

In a strange twist of fate, Lovecraft’s horror literature, meant to dethrone mankind from the center of the cosmos, has given them a new place in it. Instead of terror at the vastness of the black unknown, he has given them something new. He has given them new connections, transcending the short memory of our petty nations and the thin heavens of our fragile earth. He has given them a past. He has given them friends. He has given them hope.

It is strange what may grow from the well-placed seeds of a myth.

 

Jason Colavito first made the connection between H. P. Lovecraft’s fiction and the ancient aliens hypothesis in popular culture. The majority of the preceding story can be found in his article here, originally published in Skeptic, or in far more detail in the book which he wrote afterwards.