Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Spread of Ignorance

Two articles were brought to my attention recently, and they give me good reason to refocus on the Beyond the Veil manifesto.


One is a book review of Susan Jacoby's "The Age of American Unreason" at Salon.com . It explores the anti-intellectual backlash taking place in America today, including how that has led to an increase in religious fundamentalism. The second is a story from the Chicago Tribune dealing with American Christian fundamentalist groups that are actively exporting Creationism and anti-evolution teachings to Europe. Through heavy spending, they are making inroads into changing the intellectual climate of that continent. An interesting point from this story: the Council of Europe was able to prevent a Muslim fundamentalist creationist text from being placed in some public schools, but they do not seem to be having the same success against the American economic backing that is pushing Christian fundamentalist texts.


I do not believe the ignorance that is taking hold in America is only a result of a retreat into religious dogma. Religion and myth are excellent personal retreats for anyone that can find meaning in soul searching and the contemplation that have marked the beauty of these realms for so many years. However, personal is the key word here. Whereas myth has retained a personal connection to those interested in it, religion has always had those who exploit beliefs for personal gains in power and wealth. When religion stops being personal and becomes forced ideology, zealously proclaimed as one true way for all the world's people to follow, we have a problem.

Why do so many people want everyone to only believe what they believe? The ignorance discussed in Jacoby's book is actually encouraged by those pushing fundamentalist ideology. We are not a free society, welcoming new ideas and innovations. We are a scared society, aware our way of life may be on a tipping scale downward. We have lived well off of others for a long time. But now that we may be seeing an ultimate end to our excessive wealth that is beyond the rest of the world's means, we retreat into ideology that we hope will preserve our lifestyle.

Instead of collectively facing our challenges, too many of us take the easy way of banding together against change. Our nation has a collective lack of interest in science and art, the truly great achievements of the human race. Our scientists, artists and teachers are ignored by a majority of people, and they lose out in competition with business, money and fame. We lack an interest in exploration, in science that pushes to discover the wonders of the universe, including how our own world functions. A truly religious person wants to know these things, to know the beauty of the intricacy of creation.

In the same vein, we lack an interest in the creations of artists, who seek to explain our place in that natural world. By ignoring science and art, we take refuge in a religion and use it to try to hold on to a way of life that we hope we can perpetuate forever. But when we ignore others and other ways of seeing and believing, we are doomed to failure.

As the Tribune article shows, with American wealth and economic policies spreading globally, the same lack of interest in scientific and artistic ideas may also spread. The world may grow in its concern only for material goods, the way of thinking that led to America's predominant economic place in the world. More is better has been the American motto and has quickly become the same for the world's rich and powerful.

Economics is a human construction. The natural world is not. It can only be explained by the process of hypothesis, experimentation, and conclusion. This leads to new hypotheses and starts the cycle all over. Science explains how the world works and opens new doors that fill us with wonder and assurance, if we can accept always having another question as being assured.

Religion should be personal. There is no one way for every person to feel about the world, so religion should not be forced on people. Why can't everyone's right to believe what they want be accepted by all? Myth and art, the stuff of our dreams and inner thoughts, is how we deal with the world and express our place in it. Doesn't religion belong in this category? So, if someone gets reassurance from belief that death leads to a better place, who are we to criticize that? However, if someone else believes that death is just that, death and removal from this world, leading them to believe the only thing that matters is how they live their life while they still have it, why does the religious person criticize that?

The individual right to different beliefs should be the most cherished right we hold. Religion has no place in the public sphere because every religion is valid. No one should want, or be able, to legalize religion. But lack of knowledge and the spread of ignorance are leading to more and more confrontations between religions. Is this the world we want to live in, wherein our own personal beliefs and hopes are put ahead of everyone elses beliefs and hopes? Do we really want a system of capitalism for our most dearly held inner beliefs?

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Where the Ideas Come From

Man disillusioned moves away - becomes a troll.

This is a sentence from a sheet of paper that is full of ideas that I have written down. It is an easily accessible file with ideas for stories, papers, films - anything I come up with at any time. My hope is I'll get around to expanding them, sometime, into complete works. They may be simple, like the above sentence, or they may be paragraphs, trying to capture a feeling that defines the idea as a whole.

It is not really important where these ideas come from, as I believe ideas flow rapidly. I keep paper and pen nearby to get them in writing when they are more interesting than the usual stream of associations passing through my brain. What is important, though, is what do we do with the ideas once we get them. And that is by far a trickier question.

I guess this is really about procrastination. We need to produce some sort of story, or other work, from those small ideas. It's easier to say than to do.

I just began a collection of Neil Gaiman's short stories called "M Is for Magic", and the second story within is called "Troll Bridge". Basically, it is about a man, disillusioned, that moves away and becomes a troll. I read his story in a public place, while I waited for my wife, and got some looks as I laughed when I finished reading it. Neil Gaiman took my idea! Well, no, of course not, but it was great to know that this amazing writer at some point had the same idea as I did.

However, he wrote a wonderfully haunting story based on it. I moved on after I wrote my one sentence down, never quite forgetting it because I thought it was a promising idea, but never getting around to expanding that idea either.

I guess the point is - "get to work". You can't produce art or reviews or papers or - anything - if you don't sit down and do it. There are a lot of ideas in my idea file, but very little finished work. Time is always an excuse, but never a good one.

The question for me is - do I write my story about the man who becomes a troll now? Or will Gaiman's story be so present to me that it will not be worth the attempt?

Monday, February 11, 2008

Adaptation and Persepolis

Here is an interesting post (from the Chicago Comics website) about the new film version of "Persepolis". It deals with the question of whether the film is necessary because of how it adapts the comic.

I have not seen the film, nor read the comic, but this article makes me want to start with the comic. As I've said before, the intimate nature of the comics experience often leads to longer lasting effects for me than many films do.

For all the similarities between various storytelling methods - for my purposes here including film, literature, myth, religion and comics - they are also very different. I for one wish film would create more of its' own stories instead of adapting all the others.

On the other hand, I wish the others were not losing ground in the race for people's attention. Well, maybe religion isn't, but that is not always a good thing.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Once - A Quick Look at Life and Music

I realized that music, which I've always loved, and musicals, which strangely enough I haven't, seem to have become an integral part of how I look at the world, and the worlds of the fantastic. I have seen more musicals in the last few years than I ever thought I could, but I've also been exploring recorded and live music more than I have in the last few years. Music takes us out of our everyday world and moves us somewhere else. Exactly where depends on the form and the style of music.

Previous posts here about the Waterboys were inspired by an amazing live concert that caught me up completely in the moment of the playing of the musicians. When the music is that powerful, that interesting, most anyone can tell you that in some way you are transported to somewhere in your mind, regardless of the venue you are actually at.

In film as well, music often serves to create a new place. It sends various signals to an audience. This includes sometimes suggesting to us that what is happening onscreen may just be an ideal, a fantastic twist on our reality. We do not have music around us in real life in the ways in which typical musicals present it to us.


This makes the recent film Once an interesting film to look at, because the music is presented in a style which does not take us away from reality. The main characters are musicians and the majority of the film is presented as moments when the two are singing or playing songs.

My quick insight on this film is about the first scene in which the two play together in the back of a Dublin music store. They begin playing, then singing, progressing so naturally into their song that I did feel the music taking me into a different reality. It was not fantasy, and not necessarily that far removed from my own world, but as a cinematic moment, it was different from day-to-day reality. It was a place where people connect in positive ways, which seems so rare for the real world.

The cinematography also had a huge part in contributing to this exploratory and joyful feeling. The shots were consistently close ups of both musicians. The camera caught them understanding each other as they played, and the joy they felt as they connected through music that they explored and expanded together.

A truly amazing and magical scene, which was more than I expected for a musical that is garnering praise for its documentary-like style. But exploration, joy and expansion are what the best music is all about, so maybe I should not have been surprised.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

The Science Fiction of Paolo Bacigalupi

Science Fiction is a genre that truly goes beyond the veil, speculating on what can happen based on the various threads of real life. It is also a very misunderstood genre. On film it seems to be a rarity, as what gets called science fiction is often more mythological and fantasy based. The obvious example is the Star Wars series - the technological trappings lend them the SF label, but the worlds created are pure fantasy. There are exceptions, but cinema as a whole does not seem to do justice to the genre.

And the genre, containing what should be thought exercises as to what the future may hold, works best for me in literature. Plot and character drive film, but science fiction is often about setting and ideas. The intrigue for me has always been the intellectual game being played, extrapolating possibilities of both the physical and social sciences. A film about such ideas may not often interest the ticket-buying public, but for the right reader, such stories can provide a lot to think about.

Through the dim light of memory, Arthur C. Clarke comes to mind as someone whose work always inspired me with new ideas. As with the best science fiction, Clarke's future always provided me with new ways of looking at the world today. It also opened my eyes to how politics, technology and social structure contribute to creating new developments. As I haven't read any of his work in a very long time, I can't comment on how I would feel about it today. But there is a new collection of short stories being released soon by an author whose work, as different as it is from Clarke's, puts me in the same mind set when I read it.

Paolo Bacigalupi is the author's name and his work bears close attention. I have read three of the stories included in the upcoming collection titled PUMP SIX. They rekindled memories of the best of the science fiction I have read even as they presented absolutely new visions based on some of the problems our world faces going forward.

I first discovered his work in The Magazine of Fantasy & SF, mentioned in a previous post here. Bacigalupi writes tales infused with extrapolation of the future based on possibilities taken from our current economic and environmental trends. As you may guess, it isn't always pretty. But like the best science fiction, the real genius of the genre, it makes you think about your current world. And it makes you think hard.
The tales can be somewhat grim. For me, the only recent film dealing with any similar territory for comparison might be CHILDREN OF MEN (I have not read that book, so I can't comment on it). The settings and conditions are often harsh, but the characters are well drawn. Their situations are always engaging and thought inducing. What more can be asked for?

There seems to be a perfect storm of publicity rising up around the author in light of his first collection, but in this case, I believe it to be fully justified. If you don't read science fiction, try this out.

To help convince you -
1) A recent AP News Story about a looming problem which is typical of those Bacigalupi explores. AP News Story on Western US Water Crisis
2) One of his stories, The Tamarisk Hunter
3) An excellent, three part interview with the author PBS Wired Science
4) A review of Pump Six by Gary Wolfe, one of the best reviewers of the genre today at Locus Magazine's website
and
5) Bacigalupi's official website, windupstories.com