Wednesday, June 15, 2016


Some of the best fiction ever written in SF or anywhere else has been about redemption. The Stars My Destination-- which is on my short list for the greatest SF novel ever written-- is about a man who pursues revenge only to have it backfire on him and make him re-examine what he's doing.

Redemption is not possible without the concept of forgiveness and modern western society has Christianity to thank for that.

Now, I am not a Christian. I am an atheist. Religion is essentially an emotional decision and theism never appealed to me. But that's not to say there's not good stuff there.

So I'm going to tackle it.

Let me set the stage.

Rome conquers Jerusalem in 63 BCE and promptly installed Herod the Great as king. HTG had a fairly good relationship with Rome. He brought in a lot of Roman ideas-- put Roman idols in inappropriate places, used Roman architecture and slaughtered a whole lot of those that opposed him. Since Israel considered itself a religious state, tribute to Rome and taxes to Herod for what seemed to be idolatrous purposes served as seeds for later uprisings. Herod died in 4 BCE and the Romans appointed his sons and military governors to succeed him.

It's 6 CE and Judea transformed into a Roman Imperial Province. Judas of Galilee leads a revolt-- he is considered by some the founder of the Zealots: theocratic nationalists. God is the ruler of Israel and no taxes should be sent to Rome. It was not successful. JOG's death is not recorded but we can presume it was unpleasant. Two of his sons were later crucified. Later another "son"-- or relative- became a leader of the Sicarii.

Israel doesn't occupy easily. Think modern Iraq and Afghanistan. They don't take well to occupation either.

We can imagine Roman (or Herodian) retaliation. Crucifixion was introduced to the area by the Romans.

The general accepted birth year of Jesus is between 6 and 4 BCE. So, at the time Judea was transformed into a province, Jesus would have been between 10 and 12 years old. Old enough to start a trade. Old enough to be betrothed. Certainly, old enough to understand what is going on around him.

And what does he see? Devout Zealots carrying out assassinations only to find whole families slaughtered by Roman retaliation. The temple compromised by HTG. I suspect he watched a chain of people attacking Romans, getting destroyed. Bent on revenge, their children attacked later and then were killed. On and on and on in a spinning wheel of retaliation. And for what? A bit of land? A failed messiah? An attempt at exchanging a foreign appointed king for one appointed by the temple?

The message of Jesus, to turn the other cheek, to break the cycle of revenge, doesn't surprise me given that environment. What surprises me is that he didn't start preaching for another twenty years. What triggered the change from obscure worker to reformer? Was it a gradual process or sudden?

But the environment he lived in dictated that he was not talking about little things. "Turning the other cheek" was pure metaphor. He was talking about forgiving Romans for crucifying your brother or your daughter. Forgiving the Emperor for sticking such horrible people into power. He wanted to take care of the poor-- which were everywhere-- and discharging debt. He was, in point of fact, asking his followers to do pretty much everything that modern society enjoins us not to do. Matthew 19:24: " is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."

He was saying that what we consider the normal path: revenge, seeking prosperity, hatred-- all those things need to be released. He's talking about forgiving big debts, not small ones. Forgiving Hitler for the Holocaust. Pol Pot for the Killing Fields. The Southern Aristocracy for owning slaves in the antebellum south and for trying to oppress former slaves later.

This, by the way, is why I always liked Martin Luther King, Jr. Not for standing up for justice. But for standing up for justice in such a way as to break a cycle of revenge. For pursuing change without revenge.

Jesus did not try to reform the sinner-- he that did the strike. He went after the sinee: he that was struck. He knew that the relationship had to be changed fundamentally and that changed had to start not from the aggressor but from the victim. The victim had to be the one to forgive.

Most narratives start with the aggressor-- he who must redeem himself. But the core of redemption is to realize that wrong has been done and must be righted. That means the relationship the aggressor must realize the relationship with the victim has changed-- which means the nature of the victim must change in the eyes of the aggressor. That can't happen if the victim responds to aggression with aggression-- such behavior justifies the aggressor in the first place. I swing a punch at someone and they respond with a punch, my first punch is justified since now that person is someone to hit.

In The Stars My Destination, Gully Foyle is abandoned to die in space and spends the rest of the book looking to torture the ones responsible. Along the way he meets and falls in love with a crippled woman who hates the world. He discovers finally that she is the person responsible for his abandonment along with other atrocities. She has acted out of revenge on the world that formed her and pitied her. He is acting out of revenge against the people that abandoned him. He gives up his revenge and asks for punishment. (There's lots of other things going on in the novel.) His redemption is only possible by giving up on his revenge and, in fact, asking the world to take it out on him.

Powerful stuff.

One of the truly weird things in the modern world is watching people professing to be devout Christians-- and I have no reason to doubt them-- using words like "unforgivable." Or clearly wanting revenge for a wrong in the name of "justice." Justice is not revenge. I'm not even sure it should be punishment. If someone kills my son and I want them to die in return, is that justice? I don't think so, regardless of how much I might want it to happen. It is revenge.

Would I be satisfied if the murderer was rehabilitated to the point he understood the magnitude of my suffering? To then become redeemed? Probably not-- I'm a primitive creature at heart. I suspect my anger and hatred would overcome my shriveled better nature.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Consideration of Works Past and Present: The Man in the High Castle

(Pictures from here and here.)

I have this nasty habit of bringing up Philip K Dick in any SF conversation with the slightest pretext. Other people like Heinlein or Asimov or Bacigalupi—which I do as well. Don’t get me wrong. But PKD is the SF author I consult when I need to get my head bent. Which happens a fair amount.

PKD’s most famous novel (which some consider to be his best) is The Man in the High Castle. Which is an alternate history where the Nazis and the Japanese won World War II. Sort of. The Japanese and Nazi part is correct. But there’s also a novelist who has written a book in which the Japanese and Nazi’s lost—but not in the way that it happened in our world.

So, when Amazon put together The Man in the High Castle as a television series I was both excited and scared. Excited that someone might actually do it right.

From here on out, there are spoilers for both. Be warned.

There have been a slew of PKD works that have been visualized. With one exception, pretty much every one missed the mark. (For those of you who think Blade Runner is an accurate depiction of PKD’s Do Androids Dream of ElectricSheep, I humbly invite you to read the book.) The single exception is Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly. Linklater realized the novel accurately. However, 1) it’s one of PKD’s weakest novels and 2) Linklater managed to make it boring.

I hadn’t read TMITHC in over forty years. I chose to watch it on Amazon first and then reread the novel to see what I thought.

It’s 1962 in the novel. Hitler is dead. Bormann is Chancellor but he’s on his last legs. Japan occupies most of the western US. Germany occupies most of the east. There’s an independent area between the two. The relationship between Japan and Germany is uneasy and that is expressed in the uneasiness of the Japanese officials and flows down to the populace. The atrocities Germany did during the war have continued into Africa. In contrast, Germany is sending spaceships to Mars. Discovered Jews in Japanese territory are deported to the eastern US.

The novel braids together five stories involving the five main pov characters of the book. And there I’m going to stop talking about the plot. Every site I looked at for guidance on how to discuss the plot in a paragraph or two failed. They all took pages. So I’m referring you to the Wikipedia article here. The rest of this discussion presumes you know the plot.

Like most PKD books, it is convoluted. It is personal. It is adult. PKD rarely talks about good. There are only varying shades of decay interspersed with moments of mercurial joy. Every book PKD ever wrote is personal. By that I mean that though he might discuss things close to his heart, they are of the characters investigation of self. Unlike many of his contemporaries, PKD didn’t pontificate about How Things Ought to Be in his work. If his characters didn’t think it, he didn’t write it.

I have always liked PKD’s characterization of people. He talks about adults. People are worried about jobs. Affairs. Existential crisis. Impending war. They are concerned with each other the way that adults are concerned about other adults: concern mixed with the knowledge the other is not a child and has to take care of themselves. Not that he does not have compassion in his writing. He does. Think of it like two alcoholics in AA: they take care of each other. But they do not dictate to one another.

PKD is limited by his upbringing and the time he wrote: his characterization of women is not as realized as his characterization of men.

I have heard discussions of PKD that suggested his characterization was wooden. I disagree—but this may come from the idea that I’ve met people very much like the people PKD writes about. Mildly neurotic, self-involved people who think about life and death and evil where such concerns are trumped by making a living. People that are on the edge of things. People who are just a few paychecks away from bankruptcy and view their personal travails as judgement.

Since PKD is interested in these things, his books contain people who are similarly interested in such things. Consequently, there is a similarity of character between his novels. I don’t think this is a flaw. John Updike did the same: he wrote about people and lives that interested him. Consequently, there is a similarity between the people in his novels.

In TMITHC these same sort of people have to confront the reality of an evil that is beyond their own everyday lives. The Japanese, for all their faults—and there are many—are considered morally superior to the Germans. The Germans have continued towards the Final Solution, first the Jews in Germany and then the Jews in the US. More recently in the novel, they have taken on Africa. They may well be about to take on Japan.

Threaded through this book is another book: The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. This is a novel that describes the world as if they Allies won the war—but it doesn’t quite get it right. The Nazis think this novel is a threat and ultimately want to assassinate the author but that happens towards the end of the novel.

It is this broken mirror aspect of the novel that is the most interesting. The Allies lost and the USA is occupied—twenty years later the occupation is accepted. There is no overt underground in the novel. This is perhaps the most disheartening part of the novel: the easy way people accept occupation. At least on the Japanese side. The novel extends into the neutral territories between the two areas of occupation but never goes east. It does not confront Nazi occupation directly.

There’s a certain metafictional element to the novel but PKD never breaks the fourth wall. He never nods to the reader. The reader has to pick it up solo.

An mechanism in the book by which people divine their fate is the I Ching, a book of Chinese divination brought to the USA by the Japanese occupation. People continually consult it. Ultimately, it is discovered the book was, in effect, written by the I Ching. The author of Grasshopper consulted it on every plot point. Every character creation. One of the characters in TMITHC, Juliana, wonders why the I Ching would need to write a book. She concludes that Grasshopper is correct: the Allies won. And that the world she’s known is mere illusion.

Amazon’s TV show is considerably different. (It’s plot summary is here.)

This can’t be too surprising. Given the internal nature of TMITHC, how could it be otherwise?

One couple is together where in the book they have divorced. In the TV show there is an actual underground. The Grasshopper novel has become a collection of newsreel photos. The assassin of Grasshopper’s author is looking for whoever is producing the films—no one knows. The I Ching is not mentioned.

One major change is that half the series takes place in Nazi occupied America. PKD was satisfied for people to ruminate on what the Nazis did. The series has to show it—unless you’re Ingmar Bergman, there’s no room on the screen for verbal introspection.

There’s a lovely scene where Joe Blake is driving a truck to the neutral territories. Joe Blake is the equivalent character to the Italian assassin in the novel. He has a flat tire. A state policeman comes by and at first Joe thinks he’s going to have to kill the officer to protect his mission. But the officer just helps him. He was an Allied soldier but now works for the state. When they’re done, the it seems to snow. Joe is surprised. The officer looks up and says, “It’s Thursday. They run the incinerator up at the hospital on Thursdays: cripples, old people, the terminally ill.” The officer says it as calmly as if he were discussing the price of eggs.

This is what I liked best about the show and what is most in keeping with the novel. In both cases, the evil is apparent. At no point in the novel does PKD let you forget the evil is there. Every time a character turns there’s more evidence of it. His treatment of it is introspective but that does not make it any less compelling.

The series does the same. Often in books or movies about terrible things, there’s a moment where the camera looks away. Perhaps it’s a point of artistic license (Spielberg’s red little girl amidst the black and white landscape in Schindler’s List, for example.) Or it’s a quip or joke or madness. These are moments for the audience to breathe. To for a short second remind themselves it’s a movie or television. Amazon’s series never looks away. It also doesn’t let the Japanese off the hook like the novel does—the Japanese secret police may not be the Gestapo but they can recognize them down the block.

And, like the novel, the characters carry the evil. It’s not something extrinsic like Sauron or Lucifer. Each character carries heaven and hell within. It is their act of adult choice that determines which gets expressed.

So: the series has some plot similarities to the novel. Not a lot. But it doesn’t matter. They seem to carry the same spirit.

At least at the moment. It is only the first season. I can’t imagine it going more than one more—it feels like the story is at the half way point. If Amazon tries to push it forward as a cash cow, I’ll just quit watching.