Brendan’s review of Barbie (2023)

Tonight I saw Barbie.

I think people are going to be watching this movie, talking about it, finding inspiration in it, arguing about it, loving it, hating it, thinking about it, studying it, and in some way engaged by it, for decades to come. It is possibly the most existentialist-themed film to come out of Hollywood in a long while.

Yes, it’s a feminist film too. That much is obvious going in. The “It is literally impossible to be a woman” speech needed to be there, even if it’s not an especially new message— some variation of it has crossed my social media stream almost every day for many years.

I get that that message needs to continue to be said until the people who need to get it finally get it.

But I think the existentialist theme is the more interesting one. At the beginning of the film, Barbie is an object. She’s so perfect, that she isn’t even interesting. She lives in herself, but not *for* herself. And Ken is an object, too: in fact he wants to be an object, for as the narrator tells us he feels entirely unfulfilled unless Barbie is looking at him. He lives neither in himself nor for himself. So far, Barbie-land is fine, if a little weird. And then, Barbie drops the existential question: “Any of you guys ever think about dying?”

At that point, I felt able to settle into my seat in the cinema and enjoy myself, able to ignore that I was the only guy in the cinema who had gone to see it alone. Don’t believe me? I’ll photograph my ticket for you. But then, wouldn’t that be a Ken-ish thing to do? That is, to need to be seen as something, and to feel that need so deeply as to feel empty and angsty without it?

(Whoa, I think I just had an out-of-movie experience.)

I love that Barbie’s quest is a quest for realisation, a quest for the real. I love that Barbieland is Plato’s Cave. That the real world is messy, complicated, and a little dangerous. That Ken craves Barbie’s gaze so deeply, he organizes a patriarchal takeover of Barbieland in order to get it— and then he doesn’t get it, because he finds himself neck deep in a Hegelian master-servant dialectic. I love that Weird Barbie is a shaman. That Allan sees both early-film Barbieland, and the Ken kingdom, for the dead ends that they are. I love that Barbie accidentally finds herself on a quest for God— that is, Ruth Handler, her creator. And most of all, I love that Barbie decides what she wants is “to be part of the people that make meaning, not the thing that is made.”

That’s what I want too, Barbie. That’s why studied philosophy.

In fact I love something else about this film more than that. I love that all over this planet, millions and millions of girls are going to watch this film, thinking that they’re in for a semi-escapist, feminist-themed, family comedy film, about nothing more consequential than a toy. And on one level they’re going to get that film. But they’re *also* going to get an introduction to several of the most important and influential ideas in existentialism and phenomenology. They’re going to learn about the patriarchy. And Plato’s Cave. And Sartre and de Beauvoir’s Le Regard, and Le Regard Masculaine. And Hegel’s Dialectic. And the social construction of identity. And Hume’s Bundle Theory. And Heidegger’s being-towards-death. And Brechtian meta-theatricality. They’ll even get a touch of Marxism— but not too much, as Barbie is still a corporate IP, and the film is full of product placements. They’ll see an homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey. And Pinnochio. And the goddess Innana. And they’ll get a demonstration from Barbie, Ken, and Gloria, of what speaking from the heart, and from a place of pain, can look like, and how it can be healing.

And on most of these themes, the film doesn’t just “ask the question”. It takes a stand. It picks a side. It builds the argument. And it’s too busy dancing to care if you disagree.

I hope that a generation of boys will watch this film, and see how absolutely ridiculous Ken looks when he’s running his Ken kingdom. (Aside: in that phase of his story, he looked, moved, and spoke like all the bullies who made my life miserable in primary school and high school.) I hope that in watching this film, they’ll see there are ways to be a man that don’t involve perpetuating the patriarchy. And it’s up to us to find them. Although I worry that some of those boys watching this film will grasp that self-aware Barbie, living both in herself and for herself, doesn’t need Ken. And then they, too, might throw a patriarchal temper tantrum, as Ken did for a while. Perhaps they’ll tape a Bible to a baseball bat, and trash a Barbie dollhouse with it?

Oh, I see. That happened. Oh dear.

Incidently, I was not the only Ken in the cinema tonight. But all the others who I could see, were there with their kids, and they looked like they were fulfilling a family duty and very uncomfortable doing it. One of them was in a hurry to leave, when the credits rolled. But credit to them, for showing up anyway, for their kid’s sake if not for their own.

As for me, I’m glad I saw this film. And I’m glad I saw it in a cinema. I think that I have work to do, now. People with whom to relate to better. And meaning to create. Also, questions to ask, concerning what it means to create meaning.

All right, those are my off-the-cuff thoughts for tonight. Let me know what you think, too. And if any of you know someone in the cast and crew, thank them for me, please.

[My review of Barbie was first published on Facebook, where it was shared more than 14,000 times. I still feel astonished about that fact.]

Posted in General | Comments Off on Brendan’s review of Barbie (2023)

Midjourney and the Hyper-Real

Here’s a problem with AI-art, that I haven’t seen discussed elsewhere.

It has nothing to do with copyright issues, or what images it “scrapes” off Google, etc.

One of my favourite philosophical concepts is “the hyper-real” – a concept created by French phenomenologist Jean Beaudrillard, in his Simulacra And Simulation (1981). A short version of the concept could go like this: the hyper-real is the copy, the diagram, the model, the representation, etc., which (1) has no original reality for its foundation, and/or which (2) people prefer to the original reality.

Think of how shopping malls represent an idealised middle-American small town business district, with all the trash, dog poop, bad weather, car exhaust, etc., removed. Or, think of a safari ride at an amusement park which has animatronic animals and monsters instead of real ones.

AI-generated art, it seems to me, is another iteration of the hyper-real.

I myself started playing with it a few months ago, with a tentative plan to use it for an RPG project I am almost ready to publish (until some friends pointed out to me the copyright issues).

Using an AI art generator is a lot of fun. It hits at least two aesthetic satisfaction-needs. (1) the need to create, as the user of the tool must be inventive, experimental, and sometimes original, with their text-prompts; the resulting art does become, in some sense, a product of the user’s choices and efforts. And (2) the need for surprise, as the tool produces something which resembles, but doesn’t precisely match, what the user might have had in their mind’s eye; the art arising from not only the user prompt but also a random-number seed and the tool’s training database.

After a few days of this, I began to notice the AI was doing something to my own mind.

Other images on my social media, including photographs and graphic designs, images which I knew beyond reasonable doubt were not AI-generated, began to feel to me as if they were AI-generated. I saw a friend’s selfie, and I immediately considered three or four text-prompts to feed into Midjourney which could have created that selfie. Everything in my visual field of view, if it was inside the frame of a computer monitor, began to feel like an AI-generated image. I’d look at someone’s holiday photos of a rainbow, and I’d say to myself “I can make a better one of those.”

But could I? Is there a human element to art, design, photography, and so on, which AI-generated art displaces? And how is it that I, or others, might come to prefer art, design, and photography which lacks that human element?

At the same time, the real world, outside the frame of a monitor, became boring. Perhaps part of that is due to the season: it’s the opening days of winter here, the sun is low, and sets early in the afternoon. Still, within a week or so of using Midjourney, I found that reading a book, cooking in my kitchen, or taking in the paper-and-pencil or canvas-and-paint art created by students at my college, became tasks instead of pleasures. They began to feel like a kind of waiting-room, where things got put on hold until the chance to play with the AI came round again.

This isn’t good for me. I should not want to live in a world of machine-manufactured Platonic forms. I should want to live — well, where, exactly? Such is the conundrum.

Some amount of this has perhaps always been a small risk for anyone involved in a creative endeavour: writing a novel, for instance, opens a world to the writer herself, providing the same sense of creative-agency and of surprise which feeds so well into “flow” (per the research of Italian psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi starting in 1975).

But with an AI art generator, this can happen a lot faster. And it can happen to the detriment of the artist’s own creative capacity.

I noticed this when I made some AI images of characters in my own novels. At first, I enjoyed the surprise of seeing the faces of my people “for the first time”. And when I found one result unsatisfying, I tossed it out, tweaked my prompt, and got another.

But after a few hours, it occurred to me that I was letting the AI tell me what my people looked like. And that discovery felt uncomfortable. It should be me who decides what my characters look like, not an algorithm. But, alas, after a few weeks of this, in my mind’s eye some characters looked like what the AI designed them to be, and I could feel how they were subtly different than how I imagined them before. More than that: I also forgot how I used to imagine them.

Now, it could be argued that the experience is, perhaps, comparable to a writer who describes a character to a human artist, and then enjoys both the collaboration and the surprise that goes into the finished portrait. But, again, with an AI the process is much faster, and can be subject to multiple iterations, with unsatisfying iterations discarded.

A certain human quality, perhaps the quality of collaboration and discourse between free imaginative minds, or a quality of authorship and signature and legacy and dasein (design?), is partially replaced with a kind of Darwinian filter.

The circumstance reminds me of what it was like when I bought my first digital camera. Previously, I enjoyed photography with 35mm film. I had to line up my shots, take time with compositions, and be judicious with my limited resources. (I usually had only enough money for one or two rolls of film at a time.) With my first digital camera, I had memory enough to take ten times more pictures. So I no longer took the time to select angles and compositions and foreground-background objects with care. And I threw out the pics that I didn’t like. It was the hand of Darwin, influencing my way of seeing things, influencing my creative choices, influencing the frame of my reality.

Again, this has probably been going on ever since the printing press replaced the human scribe, and the photograph replaced the portraitist. The technology only allows it to happen much faster.

The overall point of this is not to cast more aspersions on a species of software which is still in its effective infancy, and which may turn out to have helpful and ethically noncontroversial uses. Film-makers might use it to put together storyboards, for example. Graphic designers or writers might use it to make mood-boards for their illustrators to find inspiration.

Rather, my overall point is to say that AI-generated art is another step in the already-well-underway process of transforming more and more of our world into a hyper-reality. I find that prospect uncomfortable: but I shall have to express my reasons for that another day.

My point is also to cast into greater seriousness certain questions in aesthetics and in phenomenology, such as:

  • Is there an human element that an AI art generator displaces? What is it?
  • As with the aforementioned inventions (printing press, photographic place), we all had to adjust ourselves, up our games, and carry on. And with those technologies we probably did just fine. But how shall we have to adjust ourselves this time, as the speed and the nature of the technology inserts itself ever more deeply into the very sense of reality itself?
  • If we outsource our imaginations to the machine, what shall become of our capacity for complex problem-solving? For originality and creativity? For the sense of wonder? For consciousness itself?
  • Does anyone know what reality is anymore?
  • Does anyone care?

In case anyone is curious to see them, here are some of my Midjourney character portraits and settings from the unpublished (at this time) SF novel mentioned above. I invite you to guess who the main protagonists are, who are the villains, who is the main POV character most of the time, who is that person’s anima and who is the shadow. The little boy is one of the adults as a child.

Posted in General | Comments Off on Midjourney and the Hyper-Real

Game Design Notes: The Flag of the Commonwealth of Summerland

I’m working on a tabletop RPG project which imagines if Robert Kirk’s “The Secret Commonweath of Elves, Fauns, and Fairies” (1815) had a scientific enlightenment and became a democratic republic. One of my questions: what would the flag look like?

It must be simple, easy to recognize, iconic, and (most important) modern, since my Commonwealth of Summerland is an early modern society. Musketeers instead of knights and crusaders. And instead of kings and nobles, there’s an elected senate and a charter of human rights. So, the flag must have no mediaeval heraldry, no excessive ornaments, no fanciness-for-the-sake-of-fanciness.

At first I thought of making a variation of the sun flag seen in the 1973 film The Wicker Man: simple, iconic, easy to recognize, clearly evoking values like life, happiness, magic, goodness, fertility. But then again, a variation on that theme might seem too cliché. (And, anyway, the community of Summerisle did conspire to kill that policeman…)

Looking further: I took inspiration from the flag of France: a revolutionary flag, in which the colours of the city of Paris close in on the white of the monarchy. That design became a template for modern nation-building around the world for generations to come.

I also took inspiration from the flags used by present-day anti-war and anti-corruption activists in Belarus and in Russia: white, with a red bar horizontal across the centre (Belarus) or a blue one (Russia; it’s the Russian flag with the blood removed). This fits with the history of the fantasy world I’m creating.

The flag of France could also be interpreted as representing the revolutionary values of liberty, equality, and brotherhood. My flag should represent something comparable. I had already created a draft of the Summerland Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but I had not yet simplified it down to a motto. What did my fairyland revolutionaries fight for? Liberté, fraternité, egalité? Peace, order, and good government? No taxation without representation? Or did they rally to a motto like the one used by the 1968 Paris Uprising? “L’imagination au pouvoir!” All power to the imagination— the ability to imagine a better world.

My Summerlanders want freedom, safety, inclusion, optimism, knowledge, beauty, love, all the good things in life that everyone wants. Most of all they want life: the value that underlies and makes possible all other values; the one value which, quite literally, no one can live without. They want life to overcome the Spiral of Tyrants. Their revolution, both scientific and cultural, began when they discovered they live on a planet with a sentient ecosystem. Thus I hit upon the motto. Life always overcomes.

That motto immediately suggested to me that the flag needed only two colours. A colour for life, and a colour for that which life always overcomes.

Thus I wanted the colour green, because it’s a symbol for life recognized around the world: the green of forests and farms, the green of trees, grasses, and vegetables. But green would fade into the background in my Summerland: an army on the march through the forests and meadows of the Thousand Valleys, for instance, could raise the flag on the road, and from a distance it would look like they raised a burlap sack. So the flag should be visible: it can’t disappear into the background.

The colour for what life always overcomes seemed obvious, when I considered that design requirement: it should be white. Green and white make for a sharp contrast with each other; and one of them will contrast with any background. The flag would be instantly visible. White can represent the clean, orderly, perfect, monological, sterile, oppressive, and stagnant world created by the Tyrant Kings. Green, representing the messy, organic, growing, changing, diverse, ecological, inter-related, inter-dependent, and above all living world of Summerland, cuts across the white, always overcoming it.

As it happens, the map of my Summerland fits this flag as well. The territory of the Commonwealth is an area called The Thousand Valleys, bordered on its north and south by mountain ranges. So this flag fits the fictitious geography, too.

I considered whether to add a white rose to the design: a nod to the German anti-Nazi resistance movement of WW2. I may still do so later. But now I had a design I was completely happy with. The design you see here.

Maybe someday, if my novels, philosophy books, and games become more popular, people might put this flag on their T-shirts, or sew it on the arms of their jackets, or hang it from their booths at fantasy and science fiction conventions. Maybe if they’re asked what it means, they’ll say it means they believe that life overcomes oppression: and that this is an aspiration as much as it is an observable fact. I know it’s too much for me to hope for. I am a simple nerd with more critics than supporters, and I’m shouting into a gymnasium full of people shouting at each other. But one can hope. Life always overcomes. It is a motto of hope.

Posted in General | Comments Off on Game Design Notes: The Flag of the Commonwealth of Summerland

Clarence Comfort, My Grandfather. 1921-2022.

Two days ago, my grandfather died. He was a great man; he was one of the greatest men I have ever known.

In August of last year, when he and my grandmother celebrated their 70th anniversary, I contributed the following to a family memoir. I still stand by this; it is all I can think of to say about him at the moment. I hope it is enough.

In the year 2020, I turned 46. It’s not enough time to know you, my grandparents. I can name the many gifts you gave me over those years: forests and rivers to explore, woodcrafting skills, a swimming pool to share, a long hike in the forest to learn the different names for trees and ferns, a hike that ended with Grandad and I walking waist-deep in the river with our pants thrown over our shoulders, an extra bed when I needed it while I worked my first job at the university, maple syrup harvested from the same forest, and the chance to help tap the trees with you and Jude to make the sweetness flow. There was the gift of the example of your natures: welcoming, curious, industrious, firm when necessary, and fun-loving, which freed us to explore and to discover. I could name these gifts and their influence on me, and to thank you for them. But to speak less of myself and more of you, then I should also speak of the generosity in which you gave those gifts: the gentle hands, the warm voices, the unconditional love.

We Myers kids and Fletcher kids must have been loud and messy and horrible when we were children, visiting your forest and tracking our mud across your carpets. I once held open the back door of the house and called for Buddy the dog to run in, then run out, then run in, then run out, until Buddy himself realised I was being horrible to him and he stopped listening to me. It is also entirely possible that Jude and I destroyed rather a lot of the forts that your Boy Scouts built in your forest, just because they were built by the scouts and not by us. Yet you weathered this childishness in us with more patience and grace than we deserved.

As an adult I learned that you often had a rough life: the sort of roughness that would turn lesser people into cynicism and misanthropy. Yet here you are, in the year 2020, having survived it— having more than survived it, for you come to this year still possessing your good minds and hearts, your impish sense of humour, a circle of family and friends, and hundreds if not thousands of people who owe their prosperity and happiness and the best memories of their lives to you. You are like marathon runners for kindness, endurance athletes for integrity and compassion. There ought to be statues of you in every city, stories and songs of your life taught in schools, so that all shall be reminded that people of unconditional goodness still exist in this world, and that Clarence and Dorothy Comfort, my grandparents, were the best of them.

On behalf of myself and my partner Andrea, we wish for you many more years of peace and happiness and love, and we hope to visit you soon.

As it happened, my grandparents got less than one year together after I wrote that for them.

But he left the most wonderful legacy. And indeed, such a legacy is what he wanted.

“Heaven is here on Earth. When we die, our reputation lives on. If it is good, then that is our Heaven or if it is bad then that is our hell… Life after death is the effect that we leave to those that follow.” — from his memoirs.

His official obituary may be found here.

Posted in General | Comments Off on Clarence Comfort, My Grandfather. 1921-2022.

Review of The Ministry For The Future, by Kim Stanley Robinson

Review by Brendan Myers.

Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry For The Future is a 2021 novel about a global diplomatic and humanitarian institution by the same name, commissioned to be the voice of future generations whenever there’s any kind of international trade or legal or diplomatic negotiations going on. Since the most important problems that future generations are likely to face all have to do with climate change, the novel follows the Ministry’s people as they try to persuade the world to do something about it, as soon as possible. Their main obstacles are the climate crisis itself, as well as the apathy of others, some of whom remain apathetic even while a flurry of man-made natural disasters happen all around them, and sometimes to them. It’s a high-concept story painted on a very big canvass, with a lot of moving parts, a highly experimental style, and delivered with a sense of great urgency. It is, to be quite ‘frank’ (you’ll see), a difficult book. It asks the reader for a lot of attention and patience. But being a novel by KSR, you know when you read it that you’re in the hands of a master. So, the big question for the reader has to be: is it worth it to keep reading?

Let’s try some easier questions. What genre is it? Science fiction? Climate fiction? Is it even fiction? It’s rather hard to say. And is that a strength of the novel, or a weakness? Also hard to say. Never mind, those questions were not any easier at all.

So what is it?

First of all, it’s like a master class in all the things your editors and writing coaches told you not to do. Linear-that-feels-like-nonlinear storytelling. Major plot events taking place off stage. Unlikeable main characters. Telling and not showing. Whole chapters where nothing happens. Dialogue scenes where we’re not told who is doing the talking. Yet somehow, by the power of KSR, it works.

Science fiction is, among other things, the branch of literature where some kind of plausible but as-yet-nonexistent science and technology figures into the plot in some important way. The featured science is usually physics, chemistry, biology, or engineering, corresponding to the four most common themes of science fiction: space travel, time travel, artificial intelligence, and aliens. But it can be any kind of science. The featured science at the centre of Asimov’s Foundation, for instance, is sociology. At the centre of Dune, it’s political science, and ecology. So, what is it in KSR’s The Ministry For The Future? It’s economics, with a dash of glaciology. That caught me by surprise.

Good SF surprises. In Rob Sawyer’s Calculating God, the featured science is paleontology.

But science fiction is ultimately about people— like all good fiction, of any kind. And in The Ministry For The Future, there’s a lot of people. The first major character we meet is called Frank—

Don’t all of KSR’s novels have a Frank in it?

All the ones I’ve read so far. Who are you, and what are you doing in my book review?

I’m your co-reviewer. A part of your brain that we segmented like a hard drive, so you could have someone to riff with you. Hey, if KSR can write a book like this, you can write the review this way too.

Okay, But everyone will think I’m being pretentious.

And they’d be right. But never mind them. Now, what were you saying about Frank?

He goes from being a sympathetic well-meaning fellow trying to help his neighbours survive an unsurvivable situation, to being a traumatised and unlikeable wildman with very little agency and not much personality. Things mostly happen to him, and he adapts, or fails to adapt, as the case may be.

Who else?

The next major character we meet is Mary, the head of an international scientific and diplomatic organization, the very Ministry named in the book’s title, who also has rather little agency— because her Ministry has rather little agency. At least at first. Her job is not so much to come up with the plan, as to bring the people with the plan together with the people who can make the plan happen. Her story was the backbone of the novel: on her rested the possibility of an answer to the novel’s dramatic question.

Which was?

“Will the Ministry find a way to reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, and persuade the world to do it?”

I thought good novels are about people, not institutions.

They can be about both. This one is about both. But it’s mostly about people.

Who else, then?

There’s maybe a dozen others who appear in only one or two chapters. Refugees, trapped in a refugee camp, some of them after fleeing a fishing ship where they were slaves in all but name. A waitress in LA, when the city is drowned in a flood. Various scientists in Antarctica, testing the water beneath an ice sheet. A photon, leaving the sun and coming to Earth. The global market, introducing itself to the reader like a kind of mortal god. It seems KSR wants to tell a global story, since the climate crisis is itself a global story: decentralized, widely distributed across space and time, showing different faces to different people. The Ministry gives you the big picture, these vignettes and walk-on characters show you the small.

And it shows how the climate crisis wrecks their lives in different ways?

Absolutely wrecks them. That’s just about the correct word here. The first chapter itself— I can spoil it because it’s been given away as a preview in lots of places on the web— shows Frank surviving a horrific heat wave in India. And I mean horrific. Like, the scene is inflicted on the reader.

Like the climate crisis itself, then.

Nor is it the only such unnatural-natural disaster we get thrown into.

Sounds rough.

When science fiction looks into the future, it does so either in the mode of aspiration, or in the mode of warning. It’s either Star Trek, or it’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Most of this book is warning. All good writing is activist writing: that is, writing that wants to change something about the real world we live in. KSR wants no more climate skeptics and climate agnostics. No more fence sitters. We can’t roll dice with humanity’s future anymore. So, to drive that point home, he gives us a warning. But also an aspiration. A stick, but also a carrot.

So if the climate disaster scenes are the sticks, what is the carrot?

Carbon quantitative easing.


Like I said.

I was expecting giant space mirrors. Or some kind of tech-magic that sucks carbon out of the air and turns it into gold. Or a fleet of rockets that carries the human race to another planet.

The era of the pulps was a long time ago. And anyway, one-shot solutions to distributed problems do not exist.

So, no dashing Heinlein-esque heroes fighting alien monsters then?

Well, there is the guy who runs the Ministry’s black-ops wing. But we don’t see much of him, nor much of what he does. It all happens behind the curtain. Of our main heroes: one of them is a basket case, the other is a diplomat. The rest are just trying to get by.

And the alien monster?

Is the climate crisis itself.

Do Mary and Frank defeat it?

Not telling, because spoilers.

Shit. Well, then. What did you say that carrot was?

Carbon quantitative easing.

What’s that?

A kind of global cryptocurrency that pays you for doing things that suck carbon out of the atmosphere, or that prevent its release. The novel will explain it for you.

So, is it a novel, or an an economics textbook?

It’s a kind of history textbook from the future. Both fiction and nonfiction, both story and textbook.

Maybe that’s why rather a lot of nonfiction publishers are promoting the author these days. The Economist. SETI. The Long Now Foundation. Bioneers. Wired. Jacobin. The Guardian. It’s as though his marketing team is securing his stature as a one of the top public intellectuals of our time. A kind of influencer for activists and policy wonks instead of for fashionistas on Instagram.

Jealous, are we?

No. I don’t begrudge him success. I just want to know when my turn is coming.

So, envious, then.

Maybe a little. But let’s get back to the book.

Yes. Did you even like it? Given all the things you’ve said so far, I can’t really tell.

Yes, I liked it. I’m glad I read it. In fact I gave a copy to my partner, so she could read it too. But I probably won’t read it twice. For one thing, it’s very dark. Who in this Coronavirus-exhausted, anti-intellectual culture of ours wants to read a book that requires a working knowledge of hard fields like economics and climate science, a strong tolerance for disaster journalism and stylistic experimentalism, and some open-mindedness to geo-engineering and global institution-building?

You did.

Yeah, but I’m exactly that kind of nerd. Can’t say there are many more such nerds out there like me.

Should I read it, even if I’m not one of those nerds?

Yes, you should. But after you’re done, maybe go read something with more likeable main characters. Phillip Pullman’s The Book Of Dust, for instance.

Doesn’t that novel also include a massive climate disaster? A flood that covers most of England?

Oh yeah, it does. Never mind.

Posted in General | Tagged | Comments Off on Review of The Ministry For The Future, by Kim Stanley Robinson

The Climate Reckoning Is Not Happening — Or, Has Reality Become Too Painful To Face?

Looking to the future, can we ask when The Wild Ride will end and The After will begin? I think it will end on the occasion when the climate crisis reaches a peak of destructive immensity beyond anyone’s ability to reasonably doubt it. The important words in that last sentence are ‘beyond anyone’s ability’. Let us call this event The Climate Reckoning. It will be an end to complacency, an end to willed ignorance, an end to denial. And then it will be a mobilization: we will get down to the work of surviving what remains of the climate crisis and emerging from it somehow better than before, if we can. Meanwhile, in the time between today and the Reckoning, there will be billions of preventable deaths, billions of preventable species extinctions, billions of preventable ecosystem collapses.

Some might say this reckoning has already begun. We have widespread recycling and composting programs in major cities. The fraction of the global electricity supply produced by renewables (solar, wind, and hydro) grew from ~2,500 terrawatt hours in the year 2000, to more than 6,000 TWh in 2018. There are numerous popular movements to lobby governments and influence civil society toward acknowledging and acting on the climate crisis: Extinction Rebellion, for example. Green Party candidates regularly get elected in Europe and in Canada. And in the midst of the Wild Ride there have been many international agreements to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, notably the Paris Accord (2016), the Copenhagen Accord (2006), the Rio+20 conference (2012).

But consider the following events which also took place between the years 2000 and 2020:

• Wild fires in Brazil, sub-saharan Africa especially Angola, Cameron, and Congo, as well as California USA, Alberta Canada, and Australia.

• Hurricane Katrina.

The collapse of ice shelves in Antarctica, the melting of the Arctic ice cap, and the Greenland ice sheet.

• In mid 2010, a United Nations summit in Aichi, Japan, identified twenty global biodiversity targets. By mid 2020, none of those targets had been met.

Events like these demonstrate that the climate reckoning is not happening. Powerful voices in our society and culture, including politicians, industry leaders, religious leaders, and celebrities, continue to speak and act as if these were all random and natural events. Tragic and sorrowful events, to be sure. But unconnected to any wider pattern. Definitely unconnected to the way we produce energy and consumer goods, or the way we dispose of our waste. And therefore prompting no need to change anything about the way we live.

The managers and executives of the industries that are destroying our planet are perfectly and completely aware of what they are doing. But as long as it’s profitable for them to do it, and as long as they can insulate themselves from the consequences, they will keep doing it. For example: at a meeting of the Independent Petroleum Association of America, secretly recorded by one of the participants, oil company executives discussed the need to change, not themselves or their industry, but instead to change people’s minds and attitudes toward oil and gas. “Climate change,” said Dan Haley, president of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, “is the prism through which everything is being viewed… We have to be comfortable talking about it, talking about how we are part of the solution through natural gas. And again, hitting people with emotions, hitting them where they’re— where their heart is. The activists are doing this when they talk about banning fracking in Colorado. They don’t show explosions. They don’t show rigs. They show women and children. We have got to begin playing at that same emotional level or we will not win these battles.” (Source.) So long as attitudes like this remain prominent among the powerful, the climate reckoning will not occur.

Furthermore, we have seen how those well-publicised global environmental conferences produced no results. This is by design, not by accident. The text of the Paris Accord and the Copenhagen Accord commits the signatory nations to nothing, because all of its targets were non-binding and there are no prescribed sanctions for countries that miss them. In 2017, the United States withdrew from the Paris Accord anyway. Emissions of greenhouse gases continued to rise, even while the COVID-19 pandemic reduced GHG emissions from cars and aircraft. Civic recycling programs, while popular and helpful, have not stemmed the tide of waste. In some sense civic recycling programs have served as a distraction: they allow people to believe they are doing their part as individuals, while the nation as a whole does nothing.

Consider, as a specific example, the wildfires which struck the eastern coast of Australia from late 2019 to early 2020. A season of record-high daytime temperatures, regularly above 40 degrees C, and the worst drought in decades, created the perfect conditions for the largest and most destructive bushfires in all of Australia’s history, far outstripping the better-publicised wildfires which damaged the Amazon basin, California, and Cameron, earlier in the year. From October of 2019 up to January 2020, every Australian state had large uncontrolled bushfires. By the first days of 2020, more than 5.9 million hectares of bush has been destroyed, entire towns completely destroyed, tens of thousands of people displaced, nineteen people killed, and 28 people were missing. The military was called in to help with evacuations and firefighting work. On New Year’s Eve, thousands of evacuees in New South Wales, the area hardest hit, fled to the coast and huddled together overnight on beaches or in small boats, trapped between the fires and the ocean, waiting for larger ships to come and rescue them. An estimated half a billion animals and plants were killed, and over the surrounding oceans the heatwave raised water temperatures enough to kill most marine wildlife. Ash and dust from the fires fell as far away as New Zealand, more than two thousand kilometers away.

Without exaggeration, though it may seem absurd to say it: the wildfires of that season were the most destructive environmental catastrophe in the history of Australia since its colonization by Europeans. But may I draw attention to two more facts about them that are relevant to my argument. The first is that the wildfires had been predicted twelve years previously, by the authors of an environmental impact study commissioned by the Australian government. The same researchers provided an update in 2011 which warned: “Even an increase of 2°C above pre-industrial levels would have significant implications for the distribution of rainfall in Australia, the frequency and intensity of flood and drought, the intensity of cyclones and the intensity and frequency of conditions for catastrophic bushfires.” The second and more salient fact for my argument is that even while the fires were burning, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison publicly denied the severity of the fires and denied their connection to climate change. “We have faced these disasters before,” he said, waving the fires away as though they were normal and unimportant. Two days later, after receiving some angry heckling from citizens for his comments, he acknowledged the necessity to review “all contributing factors” including climate change. But in the days that followed, he continued to deny direct links between the wildfires and climate change, and repeated his government’s support for the fossil fuel industry and his opposition to any emissions-reduction plan. Twenty-four people were charged with arson in relation to the bushfire crisis. But at the same time, an online disinformation campaign exaggerated the role of arson in the crisis, in order to muddy people’s understanding of the relationship between the bushfires and the climate crisis.

The general point: even when a major climate disaster strikes an affluent, well-educated, developed and modern nation populated mostly by White people— the kind of nation one would expect to get the most media attention and to do the most amount of work to protect at least themselves if no one else— still there is no Climate Reckoning. The crisis carries on.

From March of 2020 and through to the autumn, most everyone hid in their homes, as if they no longer wanted to look at the world, as if they were tired of it, and also afraid of it. We told ourselves we are quarantining to slow the spread of a new pandemic disease called Covid-19. And, of course, we are. But are we also hiding from reality itself?

Has reality become too painful to face?

(A more fully footnoted version of this text is part of my forthcoming book, “Ecology And Reality”.)

Posted in General | Comments Off on The Climate Reckoning Is Not Happening — Or, Has Reality Become Too Painful To Face?

Bill and Ted Face the Music: a study of GenX and Millennial tension?

Have you seen the trailer for the new Bill And Ted movie coming out? It gave me an awful feeling. Not that it wouldn’t be fun– in fact I think it will be great fun, and I plan to see it soon after release.

But the trailer made me wonder if it’s a film about the fractured relation between GenXers (like myself) and millennials.

Here’s Bill and Ted, who when they were young thought they would save the world, and who find in their middle age that they’ve done basically nothing about it. They’ve been living by a perfectly wholesome and decent moral mantra: ‘be excellent to each other’ and ‘party on dudes!‘ But it isn’t working for them anymore. They’re feeling the pressure of the responsibility to save the world, and at least one of them is feeling disaffected by it.

They have two millennials for daughters, who are still energetic, ambitious, and adventurous, as their fathers were at that age. They’re old enough to be angry about things and to take responsibilities; yet perhaps not yet old enough to become jaded and cynical. And so they embark on a world-saving adventure of their own.

I have a feeling that this will be a film about how GenXers like myself fumbled the ball. There are lots of reasons for that– the small size of the cohort, the three different recessions that hit us as we entered the workforce, the boomers who screwed us just as hard as they’re now screwing the millennials, etc. Nonetheless, we fumbled it. Whatever we did to try and save the world, it wasn’t enough: we still have a climate crisis, income inequality, racism, sexism, homophobia, and the whole wild ride. And now, we have Nazis, too. Actual Nazis, marching in the streets again, armed, Roman saluting, and waving the American flag. No wonder the millennials are picking up the ball and running with it, and leaving us GenXers behind.

I gave most of my 20s and 30s to social causes and movements that accomplished very little, and now seem to want nothing to do with me anymore. My whole experience of participating in public life, in these last few years, has been coloured by this creeping feeling of being left behind.

So, Bill and Ted, like me and maybe other GenXers too, must face the music– a wonderful metaphor for facing ourselves and our ineffectiveness. I hope that while Bill and Ted’s daughters go on to save the world, Bill and Ted themselves discover they still have something they can do to help.

Something that being excellent and partying on can provide.

Posted in General | Tagged , | Comments Off on Bill and Ted Face the Music: a study of GenX and Millennial tension?

How shall we face the earth, under the conditions of the climate crisis?

These are the first several paragraphs of my work-in-progress book on philosophy and ecology. Some other draft selections from the book can also be found here and here and here. I invite your comments! -Bren.

How should we human beings face the earth, under the conditions of the climate crisis? And what might that question mean?

If this question has to do with finding out whether or not the present climate crisis is real, then this is a question for scientists. And the scientists of the world have already given their answer: Yes.

If this question has to do with what technological or political changes must be made to overcome the crisis, then this is a question for engineers, politicians, and citizens.

But if the question has to do with the way we frame our reality as human beings, especially in the fields of human nature, the future of civilization, and the meaning of life, then this is a question for philosophers like you and me, and a sorely neglected one; it is the question I aim to answer in this book.

King Mountain trail, Gatineau Hills Park, as I photographed it in 2018.
Facing the Earth from a lookout point on King Mountain trail, Gatineau Hills Park, as I photographed it in 2018.

It is a question of the very deepest human significance, as it touches upon nearly every field of philosophical enquiry: our sources of knowledge, our moral decisions, our conception of reality, our feelings and emotions, our sense of identity. It is also a question of great urgency, as the climate crisis has the potential to disrupt all our customary ways of acting and thinking in relation to the earth. For millennia we have taken for granted the stability of climates, the fertility and productivity of landscapes, the strength of ocean currents, even the breathability of the air. It is entirely possible that in the near future, due to the climate crisis, all of these assumptions, and many more, will no longer be reliable. And so we shall have to think of new ways to understand and to configure how we face the earth.

The evidence of that impending unreliability is readily available. To choose but one salient example: since the year 2000, the global average atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide has risen by an average of twenty parts per million (ppm) every year; this is the fastest rate of increase in the last 800,000 years. In May of 2018, the NOAA’s Mauna Loa Atmospheric Baseline Observatory detected a concentration of 411.25 ppm, the highest ever recorded. In the 19th century, before the industrial revolution, global CO2 concentration was about 280 ppm during warm periods, and about 180 during ice ages; the current trend is 100 times faster than any trend since the end of the last ice age. The significance of these facts is not only that CO2 is has heat-retention properties which contribute to global warming and the instability of global climates. It is also that CO2 is poisonous to animal life on earth. A human being exposed to CO2 levels of 2,000 ppm or higher will experience nausea, headaches, disorientation, and insomnia: we will be no longer physically capable of sustaining any kind of society or civilization. At 5,000 ppm or higher, we will die. Thus the question, ‘How shall we face the earth, under the conditions of the climate crisis?’, is not only of philosophical curiosity; it is a question of life-or-death seriousness.

The sense of the name ‘Earth’ which I think belongs in my question is twofold. First, it is the Earth that is a planet in space. In this sense the Earth is not a singular self-contained world, but rather it is an inhabitant of a cosmic environment, and a frighteningly small such inhabitant compared to the unthinkable vastness of the universe. It is worth noting in passing that we have known about the true size of the universe for less than a century. It was only in 1925 that Edwin Hubble, drawing on Henrietta Swan Leavitt’s work on Cepheid variable stars, realised that the Andromeda spiral nebula was in fact another galaxy, 2.5 million light years beyond our own. And it was only in 2004 that the Hubble Space Telescope took the Ultra Deep Field photograph, showing that an area of space thought to be empty was in fact teeming with distant galaxies, some of them 13 billion light years away.

Second, it is the Earth of the famous ‘Circle of Life’, the food webs by which nutrients and energy pass from prey animal to predator, and from dead predator to soil. This is also the Earth whose ecosystems act as regulators of numerous life-necessary environmental conditions, such as atmospheric temperature and chemical composition, ocean salinity and acidity, the moderation of the weather, and a large host of other similar conditions. I think this second sense is the one that matters more, for my purpose, because this is also the Earth that we human beings are in a position to enrich or to disrupt, to aid or to destroy.

Now, it may seem obvious and not controversial to say that since we depend on this Earth for air to breathe, food to eat, water for drinking and cleaning, temperature and pressure that remains within our body’s range of tolerance, and so on. And that therefore we should relate to the Earth in a way that, at least, does not permanently damage the processes that provide our air, food, water, temperature range, and so on. But I think this argument, by itself, is unsatisfying. For one reason, it is, prima facie, a case of the naturalistic fallacy. But for another reason: even if there was a more sophisticated version of the argument which avoids the naturalistic fallacy, the argument seems to make the Earth itself disappear from the realm of the significant, so to speak. It is to suppose that so long as we are doing whatever is required to not damage the Earth’s capacity to provide the ecosystem services we need, then we do not otherwise need to think about the Earth at all. It is to treat the Earth the same way you might treat the plumbing and wiring in the walls of your house: You probably don’t think about the plumbing in your house at all, until there’s a leak. Is there no other significance to the Earth beyond that of the ecosystem services that it provides to us? (Ecosystem services— a cold and corporate word that has become the standard in government environmental policy, but at least has the virtue of precision.) Do we feel no need to care about it, except when its systems of life-support break down?

Human beings, in our long history, did not always think of the Earth as a bio-chemical service provider. In many of the world’s oldest mythologies, the Earth is a deity, often a mother-goddess, in Her own right. Some stories say the Earth is the direct hand-crafted work of a deity, and so the way we treat the Earth is bound together with the way we think of the creator. Stories such as these suggest that we can have a personal relationship with the Earth: for example, a relationship of reciprocity, in which the Earth offers Her ‘ecosystem services’ (again that cold word!) in exchange for our thanksgiving, expressed in songs, poems, offerings, and the designation of sacred groves and territories where human industrial-productive activity is strictly regulated if not altogether forbidden. Many writers have suggested that civilization lost an important dimension of consciousness when we (or a majority of us) lost our animist world views, and that the solution to our present environmental crisis must somehow involve the re-adoption of an animist world view. The trouble with this argument is that it seems to ignore the strong reasons why most modern societies let go of those animist views regarding the Earth. It is praiseworthy to take inspiration from the past, but foolish to want to return to the past.

In this book I hope to show what it really means to say ‘we are all connected to each other, we are one with the Earth.’ We have known about this fact, this thought, this relationship, for millennia. But we so rarely examine this relationship to any serious depth, facing with honesty the logical aporias involved like the two mentioned above, or any others that may appear. In this book I plan to do exactly that. I also hope to show how that relationship is troubled by the climate crisis, and how it might be healed.

So, thanks for reading all the way to the end. As mentioned, this is a work-in-progress and therefore it’s likely to appear very different when it’s done. I invite your comments!

Posted in General | Comments Off on How shall we face the earth, under the conditions of the climate crisis?

I am fascinated by, and frightened by, the idea of alien contact.

In the late 1980s, someone gave my dad a copy of Whitley Streiber’s Communion, a novel about an alien abduction. The front cover featured a head and shoulders portrait of a being which, today, is commonly called a ‘grey’: an alien with large and slanted almond-shaped eyes.

For no reason that I can fathom even to this day, the image utterly terrified me. I couldn’t look at it. I’d have an almost violent reaction: I had to cover my own eyes, or demand that someone take the book away. Dad kept it separate from the rest of the books in the library, and read it with the front cover folded back.

“Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977). Strangely enough, these similar aliens did not frighten me, when I was a kid. In fact I wanted to meet them.

Today I have more self control: I can look at similar representations of aliens in The X Files, or Stargate SG1, without a sudden freakout. (Although it does still give me the creeps.) Nonetheless, I sometimes still wonder why I had that reaction. I am not, to my knowledge, an “abductee”. I’ve never seen a UFO for myself. I know that thousands of others say that they have seen one, including friends of mine who I regard as rational people and under situations where no alternative explanations were obvious. I would say that I would like to see one, but then I remember what it was like when a picture of a “grey” would cause me to have an irrational and physically visceral fear reaction.

Besides that: “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” If I was shown a UFO, I would demand a very high standard of proof that it wasn’t a hoax.

The famous scientist Stephen Hawking once wrote that if humanity encountered an alien civilization, it would likely go very badly for us. (Read about it here.) A simple version of his argument goes like this: first contact between high-tech and low-tech societies tends to go very badly for the low-tech society. As the contact between Europeans and Indigenous nations in Africa, Australia, the Americas, etc., went very badly for the Indigenous nations, so would the contact with (presumably very technologically advanced) aliens likely go very badly for us. “Because: empire, and colonialism”. I probably need not say much more about it than that.

There are also arguments for why alien civilizations might be benevolent. A simple version of this argument goes like this. As a society develops its technology over time, it encounters “barriers” or “great filters” which might prevent them from progressing further, if not destroy them entirely. Runaway climate change, pandemic disease, weaponized AI, nuclear war— take your pick. Presumably, a civilization which has developed warp drive and contacted us will have overcome those obstacles. They might have learned how to run their economics, politics, ecology, science and technology, etc., non-hazardously and sustainably. And if they let us learn from them, it might be a net benefit to us to meet them.

Let’s see if it’s possible to split the difference. We could say, more simply, that a civilization-to-civilization encounter with extraterrestrial intelligent life would change basically everything. It would be comparable to the way human life on earth changed, and continues to change, because of the invention of the gasoline engine, or the spread of the internet, or the rise of our global climate instability crisis, as examples.

Okay, splitting the difference like that makes the proposition vague and evasive. So, here are some examples, that we can explore in a utilitarian way. Alien contact: how would it change how we think, and how we live?

In religion: what if we were given unambiguous evidence that the Von Daniken Hypothesis is true? (In case you don’t know, that’s the theory, proposed by Eric Von Daniken in his book “Chariots of the Gods” (1968), that most of the world’s important global religions were founded by aliens who visited us in the distant past.) That would overturn thousands of years of human thought, feeling, art, music, architecture, social and cultural experience. There might be a massive shift toward atheism and secular humanism. At the same time, alien cargo cults might arise, in which people pray to the aliens for a solution to our global climate crisis, or to end all human wars, cure all diseases, or to bring some kind of personal salvation. Imagine what the world’s great religious monuments would look like— the Hagia Sophia, St. Peter’s in Rome, Kajuraho Temple, the Masjid al-Haram, and so on— if it were proven beyond reasonable doubt that the people who built them were wrong about their religious beliefs. Imagine what would happen to Christianity, the world’s largest religion by number of adherents, if Jesus came back to us and he had brownish skin, a wedge-shaped head, an extendable neck, no hair, and he waddled a bit like a duck when he walked?

Space Jesus. Heals your “ouch”, teaches you to “be good”.

In politics: As most everyone probably knows, political identity and unity often forms in a kind of dialectic relation between a constructed ‘us’ and a constructed ‘them’. Even the writers of Star Trek, a pop culture franchise which wears its humanism on its sleeve, proposed that the Federation was born out of a need for several different communities to unite and defeat a common enemy, the Zindi. Now, imagine the ultimate ‘us’, all human beings on Earth, configuring themselves in relation to an ultimate ‘them’— an intelligence so different from ours that it is literally otherworldly, literally not human. One could imagine the appearance of the political will to unite the 200 sovereign nations of Earth into a single body politic, so as to create interstellar economic and diplomatic ties. One could also imagine new strains of xenophobia and exceptionalism, and new strains of that pernicious political style which emerges from xenophobia and exceptionalism: fascism.

Starship Troopers. Space fascists.

In art and culture: After ‘contact’, all stories will be science fiction stories. We would all be living in a bigger world, and no artist, writer, musician, filmmaker, game designer, or any other kind of creative person, could ignore that. Literary fiction, contemporary dramas, romantic comedies, and all kinds of other genres which normally have nothing to do with science fiction, would almost require some kind of alien contact point in order to keep up with the times. As a literary device, an alien is always a statement about ourselves: what we wish for, what we fear, how we approach differences among ourselves, what we imagine we could become, a warning about what we must never become, and so on. After contact, an alien could be just another character among many. Imagine a future version of Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express”, in which the train is a spaceship, and a given character’s membership in an alien species is absolutely irrelevant to whether that character is one of the suspects. Or, the detective.

Doctor Who, “Mummy on the Orient Express”. Five hundred years from now this will not be science fiction. It will be ordinary literary detective fiction.

in philosophy (especially existentialism): after ‘contact’, it will be absolutely undeniable that there is nothing special about humanity. We will know ourselves as one species of sentient life among many, with no greater claim to significance than any other. Centuries ago, people believed that the Earth was the centre of the universe. Later we learned that the sun was the centre of our solar system. But we still thought ourselves special, ‘made in the image of God’, or otherwise possessors of a divinely-bestowed importance. After that, we learned that the universe is enormously bigger than our own solar system, and that it has no centre. But we still thought ourselves special: because of our ability to reason, for example. Or our uniqueness in an empty universe. After contact, the universe will not be as empty. And our rationality will be one kind among many. Our interests, our affairs, our lives, will feel smaller. It will be harder to ignore that we occupy only a tiny pale blue dot in an unimaginably vast cosmos, that is mostly as indifferent to us as we might be to a single spider on another continent. Thus the prospect that aliens exist can be equally as terrifying as the prospect that we are alone.

Carl Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot” photo. Yeah, I went there.

In some of those examples, it’s easier to imagine that alien contact would be bad for humanity, more than that it would be beneficial. And besides that, I have my own aforementioned personal reason to dread the prospect of meeting E.T.

Score for Hawking, perhaps.

But the damn thing of it is, I really do want to know if there are other intelligences out there. I think the core problem of the Fermi Paradox, the question “Where is everybody?”, is among the top-ten most important scientific and philosophical questions of all time. I am heartened by the fact that in the years since Frank Drake formed his famous equation, we have more information about some of its variables, so we have a better idea where to look for organized signals. I am deeply unhappy that I will very likely not live long enough to see the creation of a working Alcubierre Warp Drive— if such a thing can be built at all. Because I think that of all the things we could pursue and possess, the most important and intimate of them is knowledge. I want to see the rings of Saturn for myself: not only through a telescope— I’ve seen them that way already— but standing on the surface of Enceladus. I want to see the Great Spot of Jupiter, rising over the crest of a hill on Ganymede. I want to see a new star born in the heart of a stellar nebula. I want to see what our galaxy looks like from outside. I want to see an alien city, read their history books, visit their museums, explore their forests and tallgrass meadows. I want to know how they survived their wars and other great barriers, to the point where we could learn from them how to survive ours. I want to know what’s really going on in the universe. I want to invite the gods to my home for afternoon tea, to ask them Socratic questions, and find out what more and what else the meaning of life might be.

And I want to know if anyone else wants those things, too.

Posted in General | Tagged , , , | Comments Off on I am fascinated by, and frightened by, the idea of alien contact.

A philosopher plays Assassin’s Creed Odyssey

As a philosophy prof, of a generation that got a lot of Greek and Roman voices in my education, I was very excited to play AC Odyssey. The game takes place during one of the historical periods that I have been studying as a philosopher for most of my adult life. Throw in a few recommendations from my students, and the fact that one of the game’s writers is a friend of mine (hi, Susan!), I decided to sit down and play.

Me, contemplating the sacred domain of Eleusis. (Well, my screenshot, anyway.)

(Well, I played one of the Ezio Trilogy games first, because it takes place in Renaissance Italy — another historical period that philosophers traditionally give a lot of attention to. And it was wonderful. But leave that aside for now.)

So, here’s a running impression, since I’m writing this blog post a few entries at a time, over the space of several weeks as I snatch an hour or two of time to play.

Spoilers, obviously.


My first impression, like most people’s first impression, is that it’s stunningly beautiful to look at. I graduated from the Xbox 360 to the Xbox One only three weeks ago, and the gear-up in graphic detail astonished me. Photo realistic landscapes, volumetric light rays for the sun and moon, a very long draw-distance, the rustling of tallgrass and tree leaves—it was a wonderful experience just to walk around the island of Kefalonia, the place where the story begins. Having lived some of my life in Europe, this was familiar ground for me – and so I am predisposed to love this game from the beginning.

My experience with console RPGs is relatively limited; prior to playing AC, I played Mass Effect, Elder Scrolls, Dragon Age, Fable, the whole series for each of these, and almost nothing else. Those are games with excellent worldbuilding and in which it’s possible to simply explore. What’s the view like from the top of that mountain? What characters or creatures might be hidden in that town, that forest grove, that sheltered bay? And the first few hours of the game, which limit you to the one island (like a starter-dungeon, I suppose), still delivered lots to explore. I’m running errands and odd jobs for someone named Marko, who seems to be in debt to everyone and who more or less expects me to fix his life for him. All his quests felt like side quests. They made me wonder, does the game have a main quest at all? Not that I would mind a game that didn’t. In fact I wonder what that might be like.

I absolutely adored what Kassandra did with that guy’s obsidian eye. And the look on his face when she did it! Whichever member of Ubisoft’s writing team thought of that, she deserves a raise.

I respected that the Florence of AC II could not have the street layout of the real Florence, because it would take up too much computing time and memory, and because the map is supposed to be an obstacle course more than a real city. But I felt more comfortable in ACO’s Kefalonia, whose towns looked and sounded like real towns, having a more naturalistic layout. And as the story took me to other areas of Greece, the cities remained consistently life-like. Assuming (trusting, hoping) that Ubisoft consulted with historians and archaeologists to design the world, I feel like I am now better able to explain to my students what life in classical Greece was like. It’s crowded and messy. Even the rich parts of town are crowded. The disparity between rich and poor is very stark. Everything is hand made. In fact I now finally understand why the Greeks built those stoa in their agoras. Everybody does everything outdoors, so if you want some shade from the sun or shelter from the rain, you go to the nearest stoa.

Incidently, when I arrived at Athens’ famous Agora, I didn’t realise it at first. Trained for decades to expect an open square with clean granite paving stones and serene white marble columns, I instead found a crowded and disorganized market with a dirt ground, and merchant stalls covered in awning. Aristotle wrote that the agora of an ideal city should be reserved for politics and philosophy, so there should be no commercial activity there; in fact he says that people whose livelihoods are too involved in practical matters (farmers, for instance) shouldn’t enter unless summoned. (That area to the side of the Temple of Hephaestos, with the olive tree that Athena planted, might be that Aristotelian philosophical space.) But the agora of ACO is obviously exactly what the real Agora of Athens would have been like. A public place where all kinds of public activities: commerce, politics, art and music and culture, and the like, come together. In the colonies of Magna Graecia, they built their agora before building temples and private houses. They did everything outdoors and in public.

Well, they had that lovely Mediterranean climate for it.

But I realized I was in the Agora, not just when a headline came up on the screen to say so, nor even when I saw (and was warned away from) the temple of Hephaestos. The magic moment for me was when I passed by some women singing the Seikilos Epitaph. I knew the tune from its appearance in Civilization VI, and I also already knew it was very old. But I didn’t know there were lyrics. So I looked it up, and found that it is the oldest recorded music in the world. It’s a song of love, but also of mourning: perhaps something that the author composed for the grave of his wife. And its text is a set of propositions about how life is both brief and tragic, and yet it should be good:

While you live, shine.
Have no grief at all.
Life exists only for a short while
And Time demands his due.

How wonderful, how absolutely uplifting, to know that this musical thought survived history, not only in point of fact that the words survived, but also in point of principle that the human experience it expresses is so universal: that we are mortal, and that we struggle with the immensities, and yet, sub specie aeternitatis, life is good.

The next day at work, I sang it for my students. They were a little astonished to hear their philosophy prof singing in class.

The inclusion of that song is another thing in this game, for which Ubisoft should give a raise to whoever decided to include it. Such a beautiful moment.

It’s just kind of too bad that the only merchant in the Agora that you can talk to is the blacksmith. It might have been nice to be able to buy and sell goods whose utility in the story is about something other than combat. There are trade goods you can find in the field and sell in the market, but otherwise they’re not used for anything. What if you could buy clothing: something to wear in town, or when doing social quests. Or, it might be nice to go to workshops and make things out of all iron metal and olive wood. To buy a house, and outfit it with your own furniture and art, for instance.

But if I couldn’t have that, I could have something else that felt just as good: a ship’s crew who sing old Greek poems. Now I’m looking up the lyrics, so I can learn to sing with them.

I met Herodotus!
I also made a superficial comparison of the map of Greece in the game, to the map of Greece in the real world. Not only in terms of scale — for obviously the Greece of the game could not be 1:1 to the real Greece. But the relative position of islands, lakes, and such. There’s a lake in Boeotia which doesn’t exist in modern day Greece. Also, Euboia isn’t an island. But I wondered if there was a lake there in ancient times? A quick look through my Britannica (I still have a complete 1984 edition) and I find that there was. Lake Kopais. Respect for the game designers is increasing.

In the midst of the same research, it occurs to me that the total playable area of ACO is probably 250 square kilometers. Or, more than six times larger than Skyrim! Granted that a lot of ACO’s playable area is water for sailing, nonetheless that’s huge. And although the landscape tends to be relatively homogeneous, the towns are distinctive and memorable. This is my new favourite exploration world.

The wish is also increasing in me, to have enough time / money / resources some day to create a game like it.

Selfie, while contemplating the Greek islands and the sun, as the real Socrates used to do. It’s really no wonder that western philosophy was born here.

The game took me back to the future briefly. I’m reading Layla’s emails and documents. Philosophers Martin Heidegger and Nick Bostrom are mentioned by name. Heideggarian concepts like Dasein and Alethia, used correctly. I’m impressed.

At the bidding of Pericles, I just rigged a vote to have the philosopher Anaximander ostracized from the city. I have to say, I feel rather unhappy about it, being a philosopher myself. There’s a hint that the ostracism might have saved his life from something else. But I’m beginning to wonder if I’m supporting the wrong side of the Peloponesean war. Wrong, not in the sense of who will win (I know my history, I already know it’s Sparta) but rather, wrong in the sense of: I should be supporting the democratic, artistically vibrant, and intellectually flourishing Athens, instead of totalitarian, war-obsessed, and bullish Sparta.

Also, I met Socrates! It was fun to see what the designers thought he should look like — and it was true to my impression of him too. Various textual sources say that he was a big, ungainly, and uncomely fellow, who galumphed when he walked. He engaged me in some light philosophical banter about knowledge. I would like to have had more dialogue options, but I suppose it makes sense that Kassandra is a mercenary and her relationship with knowledge would be practical and technical (and violent) rather than knowledge-for-knowledge’s sake.

Also, there’s one major feature of Socrates’ character that seems missing: his sly sense of humour. The Apology (the speech he made at his trial for corrupting the young) is riddled with it. My excitement on meeting him wore off a bit too soon.

But all that was forgiven when I met him again at Pericles’ symposium, where he and Thrasymachus hashed out some of the arguments in Book 1 of The Republic. I liked the touch about how he decided to wear shoes to the event — famously, Socrates went barefoot everywhere. (Imagine what his feet must have looked like.) Also, I loved his big happy smile when Aspasia entered the room. It was first smile I saw in this game which was bright enough to show teeth. Xenophon said that Socrates and Aspasia were having an affair. Maybe the game designers knew!

You know, when the game offers me a moral choice, I usually pick the one that involves talking to people instead of killing them. For instance, when the lions were terrorizing a village, I found the guy who was trying to live like one of them, and got his medicine for him, instead of killing him and his lions. But as for that pirate who makes you swim through shark infested water to get her a treasure, and who then doesn’t pay you — I made sure that she died. Painfully. And then I destroyed her ship, too.

The moral choice regarding the man and his lions, is like a moral choice between killing someone to save others, or not killing them with the knowledge that others will therefore die. It’s very stark, and not very philosophically interesting. In effect it’s only a trolley problem. So it’s nice that ACO gave me more options.

(As an aside: Fallout III has a worse version of this problem. In the settlement of Megaton, you meet someone who will pay you a lot of money to help him detonate a nuclear device, or you can kill him and so save the people who would have died in the nuclear blast he plans to ignite. It’s such a stupid choice. Game writers can, and I think must, do better.)

In the games I design as teaching tools for my students, I try to lean away from choices between good and bad, and away from choices between bad and worse. I definitely lean away from the kind of problems in which someone dies, or is killed, no matter what you do. Instead I want to lean towards choices between different (competing) concepts of goodness. Red or green or blue or yellow, so to speak, instead of black or grey.

I’m soon to publish a tabletop game of my own which attempts to do exactly that. And, sorry about the plug there.

At this point, by the way, I’ve been playing long enough to feel some of the same problems noted by critics. Chief among them: the grind. Events in the main quest line require some levelling up, which I suppose in principle is fine, but those events do not, by themselves, give enough experience points to allow me to level-up fast enough to continue the quest line. I suppose the idea was to force players to take on side quests. Still, it feels jarring to have a good story interrupted this way, for reasons related to the game mechanics and unrelated to the story itself. Levelling up, by the way, also feels like a bit of an illusion, for the reason that all the game’s antagonists level up with you, and so in effect nothing changes. I understand that the game must continue to be challenging. But it seems somewhat absurd that a run-of-the-mill guardsman, who was a tough nut to crack when I was 3rd level, should not be dispatched with relative ease when I’m 10th level. As it is, I’m 23rd level and I just had my ass handed to me by the exact same kind of bandit who has been handing me my ass for hours. I’m turning the combat volume down to ‘easy’ and I’m not ashamed of it.

Ah. Less grinding. More story. Much better.

I’m beginning to wonder if it is possible at all to create a large open-world RPG that does not feature combat so prominently. What would a game like that be like? Would it feature logic puzzles? Moral dilemmas? Racing and chasing? Detective deduction? Social manipulations? The other thing I’m doing with my (increasingly small amount of) free time is edit and lay out my tabletop RPG. I’m placing the rules for social actions ahead of the rules for combat action, as a subtle signal to players that there’s more to life than hacking and slashing.

For instance: the sight of that valley in Arcadia, with the colourful farms, was a wonderful reward in itself. Long after I forget what ability perks I chose when I levelled up, I’ll remember what it felt like to quit all the quests and go exploring at my own initiative, looking for the city of Sparta, and to unexpectedly come across that valley on the way.

That scene where my Kassandra met her mother. So lovely. So human. Great work.

Also: I’m beginning to think Aspasia knows things she’s not telling me.

I’ve now had a few more dialogues with Socrates in which we discuss whether someone can change their character over time, and whether some kinds of crimes (like horse thievery) could be morally justifiable under some situations, such as when you need the money (from selling a stolen horse) to feed your family. They’re the kind of Jean Valjean questions we debate in first year philosophy classes, and it’s nice to see them here. I chose dialogue options that I thought were at least consistent with each other, if not exactly reflecting my own views. For instance, my Kassandra said that it could be justifiable to kill someone if doing so would save the lives of some number of others. That’s a sort of trolley-problem question, to which the correct answer (as I see it) is “There’s something wrong with utilitarianism”. But it is also a question at the heart of the Assassin’s Creed world. The assassins do, after all, believe they can improve the world by killing people. It’s the very reason they exist as a secret organization. In other AC titles, this is referred to as one of the Three Ironies, part of the ‘creed’ of Assassin’s Creed. If Kassandra were to doubt that, she would doubt her entire purpose in life.

Socrates asks Kassandra whether a bad man could over time become a good man. And, in very Socratic fashion, he observes that if it’s true, then the converse must also be true, that a good man could become a bad one. That, right there, could affect how the Assassins see their mission. If a bad person could become a good one, then there are other things the assassins can do about bad people besides kill them. I wonder what an AC game might look like if it explores that possibility.

I enjoyed the scenes which take place in Athens during the disease outbreak. Historically, it was Pericles’ greatest military blunder; it cost him his own life, too. I say I enjoyed those scenes, but they were, after all tragic scenes. Here’s a city I had grown comfortable in. It is the setting where I met Socrates, and a dozen others whom I have been studying my whole life. It’s where I heard someone singing the Seikilos Epitaph, as mentioned. So to see it gloomy and grey, populated by suffering people, was emotionally rough. Phoebe’s death was so awful, that I sat for a while, just looking at her, before continuing with the story. But it ended on a harmonious and satisfying note: Socrates, at the dockyard in the Piraeus, choosing to remain in Athens, saying that there has to be someone willing to challenge people’s ideas and to speak out against injustice even when everyone calls it justice.
“I have lived as an Athenian, I will die as an Athenian”, he said.

Yes, he will. And I am sure he knew what was likely ahead of him.

Now that, my friends, is what moral courage looks like. That’s what made Socrates a hero.

I wonder if the story will take me to his trial.

The other reason the Assasins organization exists is to search for Precusor artifacts. And in my last session, I found a big one: the entrance to the lost city of Atlantis. (And by the way, the game offered what has become my new favourite theory of where the ‘real’ Atlantis, if there ever was one, might have been.) I thought the shape of the endgame would be the killing of whoever is at the centre of the Cult of Kosmos. It may still be that, but it now seems it will also be the closing of that gate to Atlantis. And I see by Ubisoft’s DLC offerings, that Atlantis is an explorable area too.

This seems like a good place to end this blog post. I’ll leave you with these summary thoughts:

  • I have a new favourite video game series. My previous favourite, the Elder Scrolls series, now feels pretentious and small by comparison.
  • But having said that, I think I like designing and worldbuilding my own games (and novels, etc) better than I like playing other people’s games. Anyone got ten million dollars to spare, that I can spend on creating my own big RPG?
  • I likely wouldn’t use AC Odyssey to teach Greek history or to teach intro philosophy. But I certainly would invite students of mine to make references to the game in their essays and projects if it helps them understand the classical Greek world better.
  • It is my wish that everyone should study philosophy, so that they can dive into our world in the spirit of the Seikolos Epitaph, and in the spirit of Socrates: questioning everything, searching for what is true and beautiful and good, seeing the world’s tragedies and injustice and darkness, and yet finding that the world still deserves our activism and our love.
Yes, I know that Kassandra is Greek, female, and a fictitious character, whereas I am male, Irish-Canadian, and probably not a simulation. Nonetheless, I still feel like this is a selfie.
Posted in General | Comments Off on A philosopher plays Assassin’s Creed Odyssey