Counting to Nothing

The exact definition of atheism is one that’s hotly-debated in philosophical circles. The everyday meaning, roughly: ‘an atheist is someone who doesn’t believe in God’ is simple enough, as is the slight clarification ‘or any of the gods’, and its corollary, ‘y’know or all of that stuff, like devils, angels, prayers, the afterlife, miracles and so on’.

But traditionally there’s been a problem which boils down to whether atheism is holding the belief ‘there is no God’ or not holding the belief ‘there is a God’. I think it’s easy to see there’s (a) little practical difference, and (b) quite an important one philosophically. It essentially comes down to who has the onus to justify their position, and the upshot is an endless cycle of ‘you need to prove God exists / no you need to prove God doesn’t exist’.

Part of the point of being an atheist is that you really don’t think this sort of thing is worth bothering with. But, if pressed, most atheists would say they hold the belief ‘there is no God’, rather than not holding the position there is one. Atheists who do talk about their atheism are fond of saying things like ‘Off is not a TV channel’ or ‘abstinence is not a sex position’, ‘people who don’t live in Manchester aren’t Amancunian’. It seems faintly ridiculous to suggest that someone who is not interested in Cricket ‘has not-interest’ in things like spin bowling, the West Indies, Wisden or the state of the pitch at Lords.

If atheism is framed as ‘not holding the belief “there is a God”’, that assumes the default state of the human race to be ‘religious’. It’s no coincidence that theists often accuse atheism of being a ‘religious belief’, or that ‘it takes more faith to be an atheist’, or say things like ‘the vast majority of the human race is religious’. If someone told a vegetarian that they were carnivorous, because No Meat is a type of animal, you would probably think that someone should be sectioned, but ‘atheism is a religious belief’ is a respectable argument in theistic circles.

It would be handy strategically for theist philosophers if atheism was ‘holding the position there is no God’, as it essentially makes the argument a Home game for them, not an Away one. Atheists, by that definition, have opted out of theism and they’re the ones who have to justify their position, and they’d have to do it starting out by explaining their notions of God and why they’re rejecting them.

The dark secret of theology is that it can’t do the job most people think it’s there for.

I’d always assumed a lot of theology was about looking for signs of God, like God was a Higgs-Boson or something like that. Modern theology actually has very little new to say or do concerning ‘proof God exists’ (or disproving it). And the reason is simple: within moments of starting a study of theology, it’s made clear it’s impossible to use logic to prove God exists.

We can demonstrate this in one sentence. Ahem. ‘There is, by definition, no way for us to distinguish God from a being capable of deceiving all other beings into believing it is God’. Whatever the miracle, demonstration of power, revelation, artefact or argument presented, however kind or wise ‘He’ was, we could never be sure that ‘God’ was the real deal. He wouldn’t need to be God, he would just need to be able to make us think he’s God. Even if ‘real God’ showed up with a host of angels, bellowed ‘IMPOSTER!’ and sent Jesus in to kick the false God in His nuts, then … well, what’s to say this new arrival isn’t just another imposter?

‘Fooling every human being’, presumably, would require a lot less power than ‘being God’. We’re easily fooled, after all. The overwhelming probability is that any given ‘God’ is not God. And, happily, that’s exactly what religions teach – the central proposition of most religions is that while every other one is the work of smooth conmen in it for the bling and pussy, this religion is the one, real deal. Not every human being holds the idea ‘gods exist’, but every single person holds the position ‘not all claims made about gods are true’. Indeed, if you’re looking for a ‘universal human religious belief’, then the only ones we know for certain have existed in every society are ‘sorry, not buying it’ and ‘I’m being dragged along under protest’. As the motto goes, every Christian’s an atheist when it comes to all the other gods. The early Christians in Rome were prosecuted for atheism, as they did not honour the city gods.

There have been lots of attempts at proofs, some better than others, but even the scholar responsible for the most extensive and influential attempts to come up with something compelling, Thomas Aquinas, concedes ‘to one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible’. It’s not that we haven’t found compelling logical proof God exists, Aquinas says, there simply can’t be a compelling logical proof independent of faith. And, of course, if you have faith, you’ve already answered the question you’re meant to be exploring. It explains why Aquinas’ proofs are seen as eloquent and persuasive to existing believers, but weirdly lacking to everyone else.  

Theology hasn’t been able to budge from this position. Alvin Plantinga, one of the most renowned living theologians, concedes this when he says,

“I should make clear first that I don’t think arguments are needed for rational belief in God. In this regard belief in God is like belief in other minds, or belief in the past. Belief in God is grounded in experience, or in the sensus divinitatis, John Calvin’s term for an inborn inclination to form beliefs about God in a wide variety of circumstances.”

So, with no evidence even possible for gods, atheism’s right?

Theist philosophers have this one covered. Plantinga adds:

“But lack of evidence, if indeed evidence is lacking, is no grounds for atheism. No one thinks there is good evidence for the proposition that there are an even number of stars; but also, no one thinks the right conclusion to draw is that there are an uneven number of stars … Atheism, like even-star-ism, would presumably be the sort of belief you can hold rationally only if you have strong arguments or evidence.”

Plantinga’s a renowned Christian theologian, he’s dedicated his life to this, he’s emeritus professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, not some internet commentator schmuck, so I’ll take him at face value, and assume that it’s a good analogy for atheism.

One problem for Plantinga is that we can answer his question about stars.

At one level, he’s right. We encounter practical problems, to put it mildly, if we try to work out if there are an odd or even number of stars. The concept of ‘the number of stars’ is problematic. It assumes that it’s clear what a star is (that there are no judgement calls to be made about whether, say, a neutron star is a star, or whether a star that’s forming counts). Critically, the speed of light limits the available information. Even if we had some pressing need to count all the stars to work out if there were an odd or even number of them, we simply can’t acquire the evidence. This limit to our information also throws up the familiar problem that what we look at in the night’s sky is not the state of the universe ‘now’. It’s scientifically illiterate to imagine we could just take a snapshot of the universe and count the dots.

However … we can agree that however we’re defining terms, there are a finite number of stars, and the number of stars is a whole number. We can agree that any whole number is either odd or even. We can agree that the number of stars is, therefore, either an odd or even number. There’s a ‘right answer’ to the question.

We have, as far as I’m aware, no particular reason to think that there’s some law of physics governing whether there was an odd or even number of stars. There might be. Imagine the universe was and remained perfectly symmetrical. There would be, basically, two identical sets of stars. If one popped into existence on one side, another would on the opposite side. There would, by definition, be an even number of stars. As things stand, though, to the best of my knowledge, nothing like that is at work.

The universe is vast. Stars form and they die. So we can say with confidence that given the vastness of the universe, even in the time it takes to ask the question ‘are there an odd or even number of stars?’, the answer will alternate from ‘odd’ to ‘even’ many times – millions or billions of times, in fact. Plantinga doesn’t actually say ‘in the universe’, but even if he’s just talking about how many stars are in our Milky Way galaxy, the answer will change by the time you get to the end of the question.

Let’s say what Plantinga meant to ask is ‘are there an odd or even number of observable stars in the night’s sky?’. The answer is, to Magnitude 10, with 99.9% confidence, ‘even’.

So far, so pedantic. Many theologians would just sneer at the over-literalistic answers there and say it was evidence of ‘scientism’ an arrogant belief that science can reach all the answers merely by counting and measuring. I hope so, as this would be really handy for my argument.

As a thought experiment, imagine we lived in a universe where everyone was utterly confident there were only five stars. Now try answering Plantinga’s question. ‘Do we have good evidence for the proposition that there are an odd number or even number of stars?’

Easy.

Plantinga’s argument boils down to ‘sometimes it’s difficult to count stuff’, that’s all. And if, as he says, it’s an analogy for the existence of God, all he’s saying is that it’s difficult to count the number of gods.

So, let’s use the same reasoning.

We can agree that however we’re defining terms, there are a finite number of gods, and the number of gods is a whole number. There’s a ‘right answer’ to the question ‘how many gods are there?’, the issue is simply that they’re difficult to count.

Except, by Plantinga’s own logic, it’s not difficult at all. Even if we confine ourselves to the ludicrously narrow definition of science preferred by some philosophers as ‘the study of things that can be measured’, counting falls squarely in the remit of ‘science’. As noted, logically, we can never count above zero proven gods. The empirical measurement of proven gods concurs.

Inspired by Plantinga, we could ask whether the evidence points to there being an odd or even number of gods. Is doing so really more glib than asking any other question about gods? In fact, it’s more useful than most – if there are an even number of gods, that would at least rule out monotheism and the Trinity, which wouldn’t be a bad day’s work. As it happens, zero is an even number [two multiplied by zero = zero].

So, here’s the clever bit. Plantinga – if his analogy is a good one – believes this to be a counting game, he believes that there are a fixed number of gods, and he understands that there’s no way to demonstrate by counting that there are more than zero gods. Both Plantinga and the atheist have taken measurement and logic as far as it is possible to take them, and agree they’ve reached ‘zero’ using that method, the result that atheist expected. So it’s clearly only Plantinga who needs to appeal further than this. The atheist can stop there. An atheist may also have faith, but certainly doesn’t need it. The atheist may be wrong, of course, but it’s plainly Plantinga, and not the atheist, who needs to justify his position.

IT’S ABOUT THE NATURE OF TRUTH, IT ONLY HAPPENS TO BE ABOUT DETECTIVES

In the couple of weeks between my thinking I should write about HBO’s new series True Detective and me getting around to writing this, the show’s become a bona fide phenomenon. Eleven million people are watching and that’s only going up. So, I’m going to have to do a little more than I was originally planning, which was to just declare that you should watch it because it’s the best show since The Wire and to note that series creator Nic Pizzolatto’s novel, Galveston has a protagonist who carves figures out of beer cans and a jarring time jump.

The first episode reminded me a lot of Alan Moore’s work, so it was no real surprise to find an old interview with Pizzolatto saying,

‘The first time I got excited about writing was reading comic books by Alan Moore and Grant Morrison as a kid. Growing up in southwest Louisiana, in a house without many books, the sophistication and depth of their stories were really mind-blowing for a kid.’

It’s got the Louisiana setting of Swamp Thing, it’s got the Lovecraft stuff, it’s got that pervading interest in consciousness and symbolism. But, to me, it feels most like Watchmen – there’s a murder mystery that’s an excuse to tell a character piece, it’s told in a nested set of flashbacks with a narration that doesn’t always synchronise with what we’re seeing.

The other Moore-esque touches are the ironies that don’t quite qualify as jokes – we see some weird events when we follow Rust Cohle’s side of the investigation, and those of us of a certain age will remember the early X-Files episodes where odd coincidences, swirls of leaves or glimpses of shapes added up to a compelling exercise in Fortean worldbuilding. Here, just as we’re getting used to seeing the world through his eyes, Cohle casually mentions that, yeah, he took a lot of drugs and still gets the occasional flashback. Cohle has that quality many of Moore’s protagonists do, where it’s unclear if they’re deranged or the only person sane enough to see what’s really going on. The series looks to be heading to the same answer Moore always gets to: it’s nothing personal, it’s reality that’s deranged. You don’t have to be mad to work here, but it helps.

Yeah, yeah, the series namechecked the King in Yellow and there are lots of fun little details that suggest a set dresser was sent out to buy everything they could find with antlers, stars or crowns on it. I just don’t see the show as a puzzle box, there’s no real ‘Who Killed Laura Palmer’ aspect to it. For one thing, it’s not exactly got a huge cast, so the pool of suspects is a pretty shallow one. Making Cohle or Marty the murderer would also make them far less interesting as characters, so I doubt that’s where this is heading. That dodgy Church guy is clearly covering something up and senior police guys are in on it. Well … duh. Louisiana. The various elaborate online theories about which incidental character did it – the gardener, the Vietnamese cook, one of the women in the school photo – seem not to be missing the point of the show so much as missing the category. It’s called True Detective, but it’s about the nature of truth, not the nature of detectives.

We’re encouraged to challenge the ‘reality’ of the show. We’re getting – and, crucially, seeing – basically different people’s opinions of what happened, rather than any objective accounts. We’re being lied to, we’re being told partial truths, we’re seeing things unfold both gradually and out of sequence. A lot of us quickly noticed that Marty was happily married in the flashbacks but not wearing a wedding ring in the present day sequences. The process of that marriage breakdown is … well, broken down into inciting incidents. We see the spikes, the betrayals, the drama. ‘The marriage ended when she found an incriminating picture’ is a story they tell themselves, but it’s clear that the real issues were things like the way Marty ate pasta and hogged the remote and didn’t mow the lawn. People have concentrated on Rust’s monologues about life, the universe and everything, but … well, if you’ve read any Alan Moore, or anything else in the Gray Tradition, you’ll have heard a lot of this kind of stuff before, some of it practically verbatim. What makes the show tick, and practically unique, is melding that with the beautifully done domestic scenes that manage to get the real sense of years and decades passing in double quick time. Anyone can make a cop investigating a burnt out church spooky, it’s the everyday stuff that’s the difficult bit to get right.

This is a masculine show. The women are almost all lightly drawn, and for all I said about the portrayal of Marty’s marriage, Michelle Monaghan doesn’t really get to colour outside the lines of a fairly standard ‘long suffering cop’s wife’ stereotype. In places – mainly Alexandra Daddario’s Lisa Tragnet, Marty’s court stenographer mistress – more was needed, I think. But it’s a show that concentrates on its two leads. None of the other male characters really get much to work with, either. And when I say it’s a masculine show, I mean it’s one where masculinity is a problem, where masculinity is in crisis. This is a patriarchal dystopia. The police department, the biker gangs and the business savvy church are symptoms of the same problem – male dominance, a culture of violence with members barely pretending to follow their codes of honour. Rape culture, sure, for starters. Marty is struggling to even realise he has to navigate this terrain. In a show about what can and can’t be taken for granted, Marty thinks being a man is the easy bit. As it turns out, he can cope with the monsters and the shooting. It’s the real life stuff that scuttles him. Three times, he has physically attacked other men for having consensual sex with women he knows. All the things Marty takes for granted as a man are shown to be just lies we all agree are true.

It’s a great show, one that without any fuss and without spoonfeeding sets down the rules (‘if they’re drinking from a bottle, it’s 1997, if it’s a can it’s the present day), and then delights in subverting them, to the point that a straightforward shot of someone getting up and walking out the room feels like the fourth wall just tumbled down. The cliffhanger of the sixth episode is that the two series leads meet. They’ve spent half the show in the same scenes, but somehow the cliffhanger is as momentous as Locutus of Borg stepping into shot.

True Detective’s a beautiful show, intensely told. Er … you’re watching it already? OK. Carry on.

IT’S NOT COLD OUTSIDE, THOUGH, AND THAT SERVES AS A CLUE

Christmas is a time for tradition. So it’s presumably in that spirit that every year there’s a crop of articles by writers who affect astonishment that they’ve just listened to the song Baby, It’s Cold Outside and discovered it’s about an innocent woman who is drugged and molested by a predatory male.

Obviously, any discussion of this is going to touch on subjects like rape and other forms of sexual assault. It’s not my intention to trigger or trivialise. But don’t worry, my argument is not going to be that society’s attitudes have changed since the song was written, so we should cut it some slack because it’s all meant to be a bit of fun.

It’s almost unfair to pick one article out from the line, but this from the Salon’s nearest, so let’s quote from that. It starts:

‘Famously, Baby, It’s Cold Outside, written by Frank Loesser in 1944, tells the story of a man and woman indoors on a snowy night; the woman repeatedly tries to depart for home and is repeatedly told that it’s too cold for her to travel. The woman, famously, asks, “What’s in this drink?” In the original score, the male part was denoted as the “wolf” and the female as the “mouse,” a predatory view of sex whereby the man must not woo but win that suffuses the entire song.’

Every single thing after ‘1944’ in that statement is wrong.

It sounds persuasive. Let’s see how it pans out when it’s performed. Here’s the first time the song appeared in a movie, 1949’s Neptune’s Daughter. The singers are Ricardo Montalban (KHAAAAAANNN!) and Esther Williams.

Watching that, the reading that this is a song about a lascivious male after an innocent girl does seem allowable. ‘The answer is no’ but the man refuses to take it as a final answer. Perhaps there’s even a racial angle, and it’s about an all-American gal falling for the charms of the Latin Lover. And that’s before we get to the line about the drink.

It’s a catchy song, but problematic. So, modern versions tend to be revisionist. Tellingly, many just achieve that by having the woman seducing and the man trying to get away. Here’s John Travolta and Oliver Newton John’s version. Here’s Lady Gaga having her wicked way with Joseph Gordon Levitt.

Perhaps the most familiar version to UK audiences is the 1999 version sung by Tom Jones and Cerys Matthews. The video – which nowadays does look a bit like it’s set during Doctor Who’s Time War – starts with Tom Jones rakishly leching over Cerys, who’s wearing virginal white. The song flips around halfway through and Cerys is suddenly dressed as a naughty witch. It’s not cold outside, they’re surrounded by fire.

Here, by the way, is the exact moment Tom Jones sings ‘ooh, your lips are delicious’.

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Yes, fifty years on, sexual etiquette had changed.

But even if the be all and end all of Baby It’s Cold Outside had been one performance in one 1949 movie, it’s not hard to detect some cracks in the argument that it’s about some innocent dove being ruthlessly preyed upon by a hawk.

Yes, there’s some very mild physical coercion – Montalban’s character (Jose) briefly has his arm round Williams’ (Eve) on a sofa, and touches her arm at one point, at the beginning he’s sabotaging her attempts to put on her hat and coat. We all have different boundaries for physical contact like that, but I don’t think anyone could make much of a case that the body language of the scene matches the names ‘wolf’ and ‘mouse’. Even when he’s leaning in, Jose leaves a fair amount of space between them. Great care seems to have been taken with the choreography to establish that Eve can effortlessly get away from Jose. There’s just no case to be made that she’s been slipped a Mickey Finn – she only sniffs the drink, she gives no sign of being drunk or drugged (and just before the song starts, we see him pouring them both a drink from the same bottle). He’s just not that physically imposing.

More to the point, there are some pretty hefty clues that there’s something else going on. Listen to the lyrics, and Eve is not being talked into staying. The objections she’s raising are not her own, they’re other people’s. ‘My mother will start to worry … My sister will be suspicious … My brother will be there at the door’. Note the tense. Not ‘would’, ‘will’. Note the ‘At least I’m going to say that I tried’. She’s decided to stay, but knows the tricky bit, the actual point of negotiation, is going to be when she gets home late. Tonight is not the issue, it’s tomorrow. And even there, the consequences clearly aren’t all that serious – ‘There’s bound to be talk tomorrow / At least there will be plenty implied’. She is not facing a life of ruination or honour killing, the consequence will be awkward looks from a maiden aunt and the neighbours.

And what’s Jose’s counterargument? Just to repeat that it’s cold outside. Here’s the thing: it’s not cold outside. The movie’s a typical Esther Williams one – sunny and warm. It’s a lovely evening. Jose’s claim is as preposterous as saying she’ll be eaten by velociraptors. When Eve says ‘There’s bound to be talk tomorrow’, he counters with ‘Think of my life long sorrow’. Again, it’s not a claim to be taken seriously. It’s not coercive – tellingly, he’s expressing what he thinks, not trying to tell her what she ought to think. He’s not doing anything, then, either physically or in terms of what he’s arguing, that compel her to stay. His arguments are all completely rubbish. Eve quickly decides to stay, and the decision is hers. She doesn’t respond to any of his points, she’s arguing with herself. To quote Doctor Who, she’s had a little trouble with her conscience, but fortunately, she won.

All that said, it’s still possible to read this is a song as fundamentally being about a man exerting subtle forms of pressure on an initially unwilling woman. She does say ‘no’, then stay. It does leave the taste that women just say ‘no’ as part of a game, and they really mean ‘yes’ and men should keep going. Not cool.

… but at this point we really do need to ask the court to examine Exhibit B. What very few people criticising the song note is that there’s a reprise of Baby It’s Cold Outside later in the same movie. This time with Red Skelton and Betty Garrett. Note that, once again, it’s not set during a blizzard.

The first movie to feature Baby It’s Cold Outside also made the ‘radical revisionist’ move of reversing the roles. The key point is that the song doesn’t specify that the ‘wolf’ is male and that the ‘mouse’ is female. The ‘wolf’ was, in fact, a woman in one of the two 1949 performances. There’s some meaty gender stuff in the reprise – a spot of crossdressing, and Garrett is far more physically assertive than Montalban. It’s also played more broadly and for laughs … and far less chastely. Compare and contrast the way the versions end.

Skelton makes far more of an effort to get away, and Garrett’s far more physically coercive. There are places where I think he seems at least a little drunk. Even so, I doubt there’s anyone that would watch this and think they’re watching a prelude to a rape. Or, for that matter, some sort of world turned upside down parody of ‘normal’ sexual politics. It is not, then, even as originally presented, a song that’s about a man breaking down a woman’s resistance. Leaving aside the fact that a woman could be the ‘wolf’ and a man the ‘mouse’ right from the outset, the conceit of the song depends on the mouse having the ability to leave, and consenting not to. It’s structured as a duet, but it’s not actually a dialogue: the singers are often at cross purposes or coming up with non sequiturs. The power relationship in the song is that the ‘wolf’ is not in a position to force the issue, and offers little to no pressure. The premise that the original is restrictive in its gender politics as a function of it being from a less enlightened time just doesn’t actually work.

Sure, a lot of this is down to nuances in the performance. It’s possible to imagine a rendition of the song where the man is a violent sex offender and the woman’s a hapless victim, or staging it in a way in which the man’s physically intimidating and the woman’s clearly unable to exercise judgement due to intoxication. The thing is that while – as that Salon article notes – there have been some creepy pair-ups over the years, I can’t actually find a version where it is played that way.

I’d argue that there aren’t many duets which would survive with that staging. Dead Ringer for Love, as originally performed by Meat Loaf and Cher is pretty much the definition of a symmetrical power relationship in the subgenre of songs about men and women concluding one of them’s not going to be sleeping in their own bed that night. In that form, it’s a funny, raunchy song. Cher informs Meat Loaf that he’s pulled with the lines  ‘I’m looking for anonymous and fleeting satisfaction / And I want to tell my Daddy that I’ll be missing in action’. She’s been drinking, she says so. If we dig into the lyrics there, there’s something really interesting and perhaps even a little sad about this woman and her issues. It would feel very different if Meat Loaf was opposite a woman singing exactly the same words but playing them as meek and passive. Well, yes. He’s not.

I did get it into my head at one point that Bing Crosby and David Bowie had sung Baby, It’s Cold Outside as a duet, and might launch a Kickstarter campaign in the New Year to invent either time travel or cloning to make that happen. As I searched for that, I learned Bing Crosby had sung it a couple of times as the ‘wolf’ with another man as the ‘mouse’.

Ultimately, Baby, It’s Cold Outside is simply not a relic of an era where men drugging women on dates and threatening them was just a bit of harmless fun. It’s something far stranger and more interesting, and it deserves a great deal more credit.

TREKONOMICS

Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without a discussion about the economics of the Star Trek universe, would it?

There’s been a bit of a back-and-forth about this recently, for example here, here and here.

The crux of the issue is that Gillian and Kirk have this exchange in Star Trek IV:

Gillian – Don’t tell me: they don’t use money in the 23rd century?

Kirk – Well, we don’t.

I’ve always been a little suspicious that he’s saying it just to get out of paying for dinner, but it’s a remark that’s come to dominate discussion, and while Scotty can say ‘I just bought a boat’ or Kirk can talk about ‘selling a house’, and while private property clearly still exists, later entries in the series have made it clear: in the Federation, they’ve abolished money. Whether Kirk was joking or not, Picard’s statement ‘A lot has changed in three hundred years. People are no longer obsessed with the accumulation of “things”. We have eliminated hunger, want, the need for possessions’ leaves little room for another reading and  Tom Paris’ ‘When the New World Economy took shape in the late 22nd century and money went the way of the dinosaur, Fort Knox was turned into a museum’ eliminates any last vestige of doubt.

Obviously, this is one of those things that a running series came up with on the fly, rather than something they thought through and intended as a great political statement. And, naturally, the implication of the line is that, taken at face value, it is the most important single fact we know about the Star Trek universe and has to underpin everything else we see.

The Federation has been able to abandon money because, basically, machines do all the work – there’s a real world economic model for this, ‘cybernetic communism’, which envisioned great robot factories replacing all human labour. In Star Trek, the solution is even more direct than that, they have the ‘replicator’, basically a cornucopia that can produce a replica of any item, including food and clothing (it uses technology similar to the transporter to assemble them at the molecular level). We also hear about ‘industrial replicators’, which produce bigger items.

The Federation is a land of abundance – as well as replicators, there are anti-matter engines that produce practically infinite levels of clean energy, there are thousands of habitable planets, so there’s enough land for everyone. It’s what’s known as a ‘post scarcity’ economy. People in Star Trek’s Federation simply don’t need to accumulate money because everything we buy with money now is freely available. Money can’t possibly be for anything. Saving, loaning or investing money would be utterly pointless. Human labour exists – there are doctors, freighter pilots and so on – but whatever motivates them, it’s not a paycheque.

The proponents of cybernetic communism dreamed of a world where everything was leisure. As in this picture, Paul Signac’s In the Time of Harmony:

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Note the steam engine at the back. And this is broadly the model Star Trek pushes. The Federation is a work in progress. Its endgame must be something like Iain M Banks’ Culture, an almost unimaginable diverse and abundant galactic utopia, where trillions of citizens can live utterly self-determined lives, and (just as importantly) most are psychologically equipped to cope with such abundance. Banks’ books tended to deal with the very few who don’t quite fit even the most accommodating of all possible societies.

 But this is by no means the only possible result of a work-free society. In the Judge Dredd series, machines do all the work – with the result being pandemic unemployment among the human population, leading to deprivation, desperation and all the social ills we know that can lead to. Mega City One is essentially a sink estate with a population of 800 million people. Some people there dress up as robots and try to sneak into building sites and factories to work.

I think the most interesting Star Trek story is one that’s never been told: what happened the day they invented replicators. It would be an astonishingly disruptive period of history. We saw the fuss this year when someone invented a printable gun. Now imagine that everyone in the world suddenly has access to a device that could produce weapons grade plutonium and an infinite number of dollar bills. It’s hard to imagine an area of life that wouldn’t be affected. The first few years must have seen orgies of excess. The first generation of replicator users in Star Trek must have filled their houses with stuff. Everyone must have sat around in (fake) furs, dripping with diamonds on platinum thrones.

Vance Packard’s book The Hidden Persuaders says that when freezers became widely available in America, people used to keep them stuffed to the brim. It was a new technology, much of this food was quickly ruined – the temperature control wasn’t very precise, and people simply didn’t know how to store things or understand freezer burn. Freezers were hugely successful anyway, because the appeal was psychological, not practical – for a generation that grew up during the Depression, the idea of having enormous amounts of food in the house was astonishingly powerful, even if the food was actually inedible. It was about having, not using.

The first people with replicators would, surely, do the same thing: surround themselves with luxury. The fact that in this brave new world gold and diamonds just pour out a slot in the wall wouldn’t matter for a while: people would cling to the idea gold had an intrinsic value.

In one of his futurist discussion documents, Gene Roddenberry stated that historians had concluded that the average person at any given time had the quality of life of the richest people two hundred years before. It sounds a little too hard-and-fast to hold true to me, but you can see the general principle. The average American now has a lifestyle beyond the dreams of even the elite in Washington’s time – a more varied diet, the ability to travel further and faster, healthier lives, access to (ownership of, in many cases) libraries that dwarf Jefferson’s, less physically demanding jobs, an almost limitless range of entertainments and other leisure activities. Those harking back to the golden age of the framers of the Constitution might be right that their rivers were cleaner, but their drinking water wasn’t.

Looking ahead, Roddenberry’s vision is that in the Star Trek universe, the average citizen lives like one of the super-rich does now.

There’s a problem. As Ben Elton pointed out in Stark, there comes a point where you just hit an absolute limit of needs being met. Your problem becomes that your house is too big and people are living too long. The rich can eat the very best food in the world, all the time. The Tasting Menu at the Fat Duck costs ₤195. If you ate there every night, that would cost you ₤73,000 a year. A vast, obscene and ridiculous amount of money … and about what Mitt Romney makes every weekday. In a world of replicators, the only real obscenity – the price – goes away, as do some of the other problems (getting a reservation, for example) and a citizen of the Federation could just eat that Tasting Menu every night, and with less effort than it takes us to heat a can of soup.

OK, so in two hundred years time, the very best cuisine may be even more exquisite and rare – can you imagine what Heston Blumenthal could serve up if he had a replicator? – but how delicious and novel is it actually possible for food to get? One of the least convincing things for me about Star Trek is that they seem surprised by alien cuisines. Surely, surely, surely they have not lost the impulse many of us have now to seek out new restaurants, to boldly eat what none of our friends have eaten before?

And if the Fat Duck sold press-of-a-button meals, would it still be the Fat Duck? Isn’t the appeal that the meal was prepared, or at least directly overseen, by a top chef? That the location itself is important? Isn’t the point of the Fat Duck that it’s a once in a lifetime experience, not something easy? After a while, I think, the appeal of easy indulgence would dwindle. You can imagine the second generation of replicator users shunning conspicious displays of material wealth, preferring a more austere life. And this is what we see in Star Trek. They eat really boring food.

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Faced with technology and leisure time – not to mention a tolerant society – that meant everyone could dress like Lady Gaga if they desired, civilian clothing in Star Trek is astonishingly drab and boring:

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People all seem to live in fairly austere, even spartan rooms.

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Decoration is confined to a few personal mementoes and perhaps an antique or two. There’s clearly at least a subculture with the urge to live pastorally – colonist farmers, space hippies, even Captain Kirk lives in a log cabin for a while and takes Bones and Spock camping. Modest lifestyles are clearly trendy. People have clearly decided, as individuals and as a society, to life lives of self control. There are no drug addicts (or even smokers), no one is obese. Some kind of Amish-like instinct to value ‘honest work’ exists. Geordi painstakingly builds a model of a sailing ship, and when Data points out he could have just replicated it, we’re supposed to agree with Geordi that Data’s missed the point.

There’s one interesting bottleneck in this abundant society that’s a very visible presence in the Star Trek shows: it’s difficult and desirable to get into Starfleet Academy. This fact alone demonstrates that there’s more in play at the Federation than ‘freedom of choice and self determination’. Yes, you get in on merit … but someone at Starfleet is assessing those merits. Like the ‘good universities’ and financial firms of our era, if you’re trying to get in, it doesn’t seem to hurt if your parents were there. Wesley Crusher is a smart kid, but he fails to get in on merit the one time he tries, and eventually gets into the Academy because Picard has a word and a rule bends. Is that corruption? Perhaps not, but how many other people got in because of a quiet word? Wesley has a huge advantage because he’s surrounded by people in the know who can offer advice. What about some smart, motivated kid who doesn’t know the right people?

Starfleet Academy has a limited – it’s implied that’s it’s a strictly fixed – class size. Exclusion exists, then, in the Federation. You can’t always get what you want.

Star Trek, bless it, does tend to play the same story over and over. The regular characters almost all fall into two categories – people whose parents were in Starfleet and people whose families disapproved so much of them signing up for Starfleet that it led to a family rift. The unplanned corollary of this is that it paints a picture of an Earth were a chunk of the population vocally dislike Starfleet and what it stands for. The reason why is often stated in terms of Starfleet (and those who wish to join) being ‘above itself’. Perhaps, in this post-scarcity economy, the mere fact Starfleet is an exclusive institution is offensive to many people.

But there must be other places where decisions are being made about the allocation of unique resources. While a replicator could be used to make an exact copy of, say, the Mona Lisa, it wouldn’t be the Mona Lisa. So, who gets the one Leonardo painted? There are private art collections in the Federation. In two we see, Requiem for Methuselah and The Most Toys, we even see original Leonardo Da Vinci paintings. Spock can use his tricorder to check they’re not fakes, and presumably *Fajo didn’t acquire his Mona Lisa before knowing for a fact it was the real deal. But how did he acquire it in the first place? He makes a point of saying that he collects things for the bragging rights when he meets other collectors. Other people want it, so why did he get it, not them?

Presumably there’s some law or institution that allocates these things based on … well, we don’t know. It needn’t be nefarious – if Fajo had supplied medicine that saved a million French space colonists, perhaps a grateful French nation granted him the painting. He might be seen as more ‘deserving’ than some art museum that already had ostentatious amounts of fine art.

The Federation, though, is clearly not quite a post-scarcity society. There are limits. There are some materials which can’t be replicated. Starfleet can’t just whisk up a thousand new starships overnight (and, perhaps as pertinently, couldn’t crew them if it did).

Here’s something I noticed:looking closely, most Star Trek episodes are about a planet that lacks something which the Enterprise can supply. Missions typically involve delivering rare medicine to a planet suffering from a plague, key personnel like ambassadors and top scientists to planets where they are needed. Even the more overtly military missions – racing to the aid of a planet under attack – implies that the planets themselves can’t just whisk up a starship to fight or flee. At a more abstract level, the insight Kirk or Picard can bring to a situation clearly makes them rare assets themselves.

The conclusion has to be that this is a function of the Federation being not quite a post-scarcity civilisation. Starfleet has a mission of exploration and scientific discovery, but it – and virtually all the non-Starfleet space travel we see – is actually about redistributing the last few scarce items.

There’s another wrinkle to this, though. As we run down a list of things that can’t be replicated, we hit a really interesting one.

Some of the advocates of cybernetic communism (and plenty of science fiction writers) envisaged a world of male births and artificial wombs. Some feminist writers saw the liberating potential of this. It’s fair to say that most see it as a sign of inhumanity. In the post-Byrne Superman stories (including the movie named after his relaunch, The Man of Steel), Krypton is a world of marvels but the ‘gestation matrix’ represents something of a loss. The loomed Time Lords of the Doctor Who novels are sterile and unimaginative, not vital. The ur-text, of course, is Brave New World, where bottled clones serve the worldstate.

The Federation looks in places like Brave New World on a good day, but it abhors artificial enhancement of human beings. Sure, Geordi has his VISOR, Picard has an artificial heart, but these just restore them to a baseline. Humans have an almost weird phobia about androids that look human. They’ve banned cloning, genetic engineering and all sorts of related technology. The Eugenics Wars seem to have left the human race with a deep distaste for developing posthumans. People train themselves to improve, any machine help is seen as cheating and even unnatural.

If you want a baby in the Federation, it’s going to gestate in a woman’s womb. And there’s a (large, but) limited number of wombs available. Therefore, wombs in the Federation are a valuable, scarce commodity.

Perhaps we could go as far as to infer that it’s this, the scarcity of wombs, that’s led to the sexist attitudes we see in the show in all its incarnations, the marginalisation of women, the society-wide heteronormativity, the short skirts, dancing girls and sanctioned sexual harrassment, the light treatment of rape and attempted rape. If so, the Federation is a society that’s eliminated virtually all the old inequalities, but had an economic system that’s enshrined one of the oldest and most fundamental.

An Evening With Alan Moore

I’ll write up the Alan Moore event soon, but in the meantime, here’s …

A video, courtesy of Bleeding Cool.

Audio, courtesy of Pop Culture Hounding.

And a video of a song Alan Moore sang on the night …

Magic Words – Interviews and Features

As well as reviews, I’ve been interviewed about Magic Words and also written some features. So, here’s a list. Like the review page, I’ll update this as I go. And if anyone else wants to interview me about the book, please get in touch!

Hannah Menzies for Bleeding Cool.

Smoky Man for Alan Moore World.

Colin Smith for Too Busy Thinking About My Comics.

Owen Quinn for The Time Warriors.

Brian Burns for Body Mind Beauty Health and part two.

An article by me giving Ten Reasons to Read Alan Moore on We Love This Book.

Pádraig Ó Méalóid’s inte(review) for Forbidden Planet

Alan David Doane at Trouble With Comics.

A Bonfire Night extract on QGeekBooks.

It’s a recommended Christmas gift at stuff.tv and a staff pick at Orbital Comics.

Magic Words – The Reviews Are In

OK. Magic Words: The Extraordinary Life of Alan Moore is out now, and lots of people have been reviewing it. Here’s a quick list, which I’ll update as more reviews come in:

Bleeding Cool – ‘This is quite literally the book that fans have been starving for over the course of decades to take its place alongside the more art-based books and interview collections that have appeared in recent years. Here you have a book that places Moore alongside other great cultural movers and shakers well beyond the sphere of comics and it’s an excellent resource for gaining a wider understanding of the man and his work.’

Starburst – ‘Magic Words is a brave attempt to get to grips with one of the titans of modern pop culture.’

The TARDIS Eruditorium – ‘Magic Words is something else; a landmark, definitive tome that immediately establishes itself as one of the absolutely essential works for anybody interested in Alan Moore.’

Too Busy Thinking About My Comics – ‘I can only suggest that you drop everything and search out a copy of Magic Words right now. It compliments the very best of what’s previously been written about Moore while rendering a great deal of the rest entirely obsolete.’

SF Crow’s Nest.

The Book Bag – ‘Fandom is rife with knowledge of Moore’s character, and his history in producing graphic novels – and that’s only natural considering how much they sold, and still continue to do so. But I defy any fan to not gain a host of knowledge and insight from these pages. It is completist, and yet it never once approaches being overbearing. It is a book that deserves its level of introspection and intimacy with its subject. What’s more, if there was any doubt remaining about whether Moore justified this treatment – and it has to be said I have a rampant ability to see his output as on one hand good, on the other definitely over-rated – this smashes that doubt. Parkin shows consummate knowledge of his subject, and the end result of it all is that you do see how vital to modern publishing Moore is, and therefore how essential this book is to everyone vaguely interested in comics.’

A Guide To Geekdom – ‘It is a satisfyingly balanced book that still leaves you rooting for the man himself. With Magic Words, Parkin has managed to compile a biography of one of the most prolific creative minds of our time in such a way that anyone can read it and find out more about him, no matter whereabouts they have entered into the world of Alan Moore. Ardent fanatics will enjoy the glimpses into his personal life and opinions; comics afficionados will appreciate the way that the book anchors itself firmly in the culture of its subject, giving a well-rounded potted history of the then-burgeoning British comics movement as well as snapshots of what the scene was like in 1980s America. Fans of his more “occult” work will find more than enough to satisfy their own particular tastes regarding Moore’s own understandings of the Universe and his relationship to it, perhaps drawing some inspiration for themselves.’

SFX – ‘Lance Parkin is witty and informed. He’s a devotee of Moore’s work, but not uncritical. He’s also happy to point out his protagonist’s contradictions. You come away with an understanding of Moore the artist, but his day-to-day life remains discreetly hidden.’

Forbidden Planet – ‘I loved it … it’s well written, informative, and an important book on an important subject. It helps us to better understand and appreciate both the man and his work, and shines light into some previously dark corners.’

A quick reaction to the design work at Shelf Abuse and their full review – ‘Parkin’s suitably lengthy tome is as obsessive, heartfelt, provocative and indirect as its subject. But Magic Words is also a surprisingly pertinent read. Parkin paints a messy but fascinating portrait of a writer whose superior takes on mainstream superhero fare came from a deep affinity for underground and self-published comics, and a vocal hatred for the business practices of the giants which still dominate the industry.’

And a review in one of Alan Moore’s local papers, the Northants Telegraph – ‘Parkin was previously best known as a Doctor Who writer, so has form in chronicling the exploits of principled British eccentrics; his account is as readable as it is incisive, and commendably even-handed.’

Publishers Weekly – ‘Lance Parkin (Ahistory: An Unauthorized History of the Doctor Who Universe) gives us a fascinating and comprehensive biography of one of the living masters of comic book writing, Alan Moore. Few stones go unturned in this survey of his life and career with detailed accounts of the creation of everything from major works like Watchmen and V for Vendetta, to some predictive juvenilia created while Moore’s talent was forming (illustrated excerpts included). The man himself, a famously eccentric curmudgeon with mystic tendencies, is a captivating character even apart from his work. Moore’s story can’t be told without mentioning some of his famous disagreements with co-creators, editors, publishers, and filmmakers; Parkin’s protocol is to share both known sides of the arguments. This is an essential book for any serious comics fan. Though Alan Moore and his career take center stage, his interactions with and influence on his cohort of British comics writers provide a microcosm of how the comics medium underwent a quantum leap in maturity in the ‘80s, with long-term effects that remain even in media beyond comics. Agent: Jessica Papin, Dystel & Goderich Literary Management. (Dec.)’

Broken Frontier – ‘Parkin’s gift for this kind of pattern recognition elevates his book from a by-the-numbers account into an altogether more satisfying examination of Moore’s life and remarkable body of work, as well as the changing business of comics over the last four decades.’

The Onion AV Club – ‘Parkin’s dissection of Moore’s vast oeuvre, the opuses and the marginalia, are penetrating and fresh, with plenty of cogent contextualization regarding the history of comics as it pertains to Moore, and vice versa. And his breakdown of Moore’s creative process is fascinating in both its detail and its eerie quietude.’

Alternate Cover – ‘While Parkin’s fair-mindedness and attention to factual detail might be the most obvious assets the book has to offer a hardcore Moore fan, as a publication in its own right its strengths lie more in the author’s zippy and engaging writing style (no surprise to anyone who knows his Doctor Who work, but it makes reading it an absolute breeze without ever feeling simplistic or lacking), and in its physical presentation.’

Hollywood The Write Way – ‘This is one of the most insightful, in depth biographies I’ve ever read. Call it an encyclopedia or even a bible for Alan Moore fans.’

Shelf Awareness – ‘Magic Words is a biography, not a literary study. As such, it helps us recognize why Alan Moore matters while leaving plenty of room to discover his work for ourselves.’

Power of Pop – ‘Magic Words is an essential tome for all fans of Alan Moore, comic books and creative writing.’

Pamphlets of Destiny -  ‘I can’t really see how more detail could be achieved without giving Alan Moore a colonoscopy. In any case, I don’t know why you would need more detail than is given here. As biographies go, this is pretty much perfect. I found it fascinating.’

The Daily Telegraph – ‘The business side of Moore’s life is analysed at admirable length, and anyone wanting detail of his souring relationship with his publisher DC Comics or the endless debate over the rights to Miracleman will be amply served.’