In the back story of “Black America,” the Confederacy was defeated. But instead of enduring the painful eras of Reconstruction and Jim Crow, African-Americans received reparations. The former slaves and freedmen claimed Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, a nation known as New Colonia.
That nation has a “tumultuous and sometimes violent relationship” with the United States, which is described as both an ally and a foe.
I have to wonder if Black America is a replacement for The Man in the High Castle, which is entering its third (and final?) season. Regardless, the possibility of independent nations occupying the geography of the real-life Lower 48 is an alt-hist concept I adore — I’ve used it more than once in my short fiction. Amazon, you had my curiosity but now you have my attention.
Black Panther is a hero in the Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark mold, a super-wealthy bachelor who uses science and athleticism to pound on bad guys. There are no secret identities — everyone knows who BP is: he’s T’Challa, the king of the African nation Wakanda, which is a mix of grass huts, deep jungle, and 1970s futurism.
The essay is a departure from my usual stuff, very loose and free floating, a sepia stream of consciousness about comics and growing up in a household where futurism was literally just laying around on tables or bolted to the roof. Whereas Panther’s color resonated with many black readers, it was the setting that captured my imagination, and still does: I nearly jumped out of my seat at the brief glimpses of Wakanda at the tail end of this year’s Captain America: Civil War.
As of this writing my essay has received 20 retweets and a dozen likes on Twitter, more than my book ever did, suggesting maybe I should write about pop culture more often. Unfortunately I’m poorly qualified for the job: I generally hate TV (some exceptions may apply), I can count the frequency I go the movies in a year on one hand, and the number of video games I’ve played to completion since 2011 tallies at exactly three. I love music but not being a musician myself I feel I lack the vocabulary to adequately speak about it. Which leaves book blogging, something I’m hoping to do more of in the new year.
Rereading my old BP comics within the full and complete context of “Panther’s Rage” has been gratifying, with Wakanda coming across as smaller than I remember (the sci-fi technology is largely confined to T’Challa’s palace) and yet bigger (more dinosaurs! snowy mountain wastelands chock full of yetis!). It’s interesting being at an age now where I can experience a phenomenon both as contemporary futurism and as retrofuturism. Something like Vernean steampunk will forever be out of reach as a potentiality and exists only for us as a quaint, even naive, vision of how things were supposed to be; but by simply living past tomorrow we can experience both the very real possibility and the hindsight of existing in what invariably turns out to be a different future. I was recently talking to my dad about the solar panels on his house, which are solely for heating water. When I asked him whether photovoltaic panels were available in the 70s, he told me no, not commercially — the technology was in its infancy. And yet as we spoke while driving through the streets of his town, we spotted several houses with PV arrays on their roofs. Wherever you go there you are, but almost never where you thought you’d be.
I’ll be there on opening day in 2018 when the MCU Black Panther movie drops, and I’m sure I’ll have many opinions about it. Maybe I’ll even write some of them down. Meow.
A funny thing happened in 2015: people began reading this blog. More specifically, people began reading this blog and sending me free books in response to what I’d scribbled here. The result by year’s end was a pillar on my desk which in gratitude I feel some obligation to read and discuss. Here’s the first.
BioShock and Philosophy
Luke Cuddy, ed.
Wiley Blackwell (180 pp, $17.95, June 2015)
My relationship status with Ayn Rand is It’s Complicated. On one hand, I’ve never been able to progress deeply into, let alone finish, any of her books; her heavy and mechanical prose is what a robotic arm on a Detroit assembly line would write upon gaining sentience. Her ideas, which she believed novel, were better articulated by others. For example, Rand criticized progressive taxation as punishing success and innovation, and believed it was motivated by envy of the rich rather than logic. I agree. But these weren’t new ideas: a century beforehand, Frederic Bastiat concluded that tax policy is less about paying for roads and bridges and more about the political class rewarding its friends and punishing its enemies, while Nietzsche observed that under Judeo-Christian slave morality, poverty and the hatred of wealth is virtuous (Mark 10:25, Matthew 19:24). You would never know these two existed if you listened to Rand or her followers — to them, these thoughts sprang like Athena from her head alone; I might have more respect for Rand if she had occasionally included some footnotes and a bibliography. There is also the sneaking suspicion that Rand was a manipulative so-and-so who used rhetoric to rationalize her bad behavior, and that the main draw for Objectivists today is simply to justify theirs.
On the other hand, I can’t deny Rand’s influence on 20th-century political thought. This one time, at Ithaca College? A classmate mentioned Rand and our professor — who was the chair of the philosophy department — rolled his eyes and dismissed her. It’s amazing that I was awarded a four-year degree in philosophy and yet that incident is the entirety of my formal exposure to Rand. Love her or hate her, for good or bad, Rand’s name is thrown around too often today to be rejected with a shruggie.
It may be a little surprising to learn that a book titled BioShock and Philosophy isn’t cover-to-cover Ayn Rand. Instead, editor Luke Cuddy presents 16 essays that use the BioShock games for a variety of philosophical entrances, from Oliver Laas’s exploration of the characters’ free will to Simon Ledder’s introduction to transhumanism through plasmids and vigors. In fact the closest we get to an Objectivist tour of Rapture occurs via Rand’s aesthetics on art, whereby author Jason Rose concludes that Objectivists — who generally don’t like the game — should feel redeemed by it because Andrew Ryan is a bad Objectivist (to be fair, Cuddy may have approached hardline Objectivists for contributions but was probably rebuked with insults, accusations of irrationalism, and demands to sleep with Cuddy’s wife).
For me the strongest appeal of the BioShock games was their theme of utopianism, and because of that I have to thank Rick Elmore for my introduction to Carl Schmitt’s theory of political foundation. Schmitt believed that nations or political communities are founded in opposition to some other assemblage, that group identity coalesces through hostility to another group — it’s us versus them. It’s sort of like Nixon’s quip, only writ large, that voters vote against the candidates they hate, not for those they like. Elmore uses Schmitt’s theory to explain the utopian experiments of Andrew Ryan and Zachary Comstock. Both create new societies that are antagonistic to others: for Ryan, it is parasites and socialism, while for Comstock it’s sinfulness and a disturbing lack of faith in white supremacy. This idea is relevant today and explains a great deal why nations inflate threats (America’s fear of Muslim terrorism) or constantly vilify other countries (the pathological obsession the Iranian and North Korean governments have with the US). The flames must be stoked long after the inciting spark has burned out, and defining group identity as being at war with another does exactly that. Schmitt also happened to be an unrepentant Nazi who used his theory to substantiate the Third Reich — which is again appropriate here, considering Hitler’s dream of utopia collapsed as surely and completely as Ryan’s and Comstock’s.
BioShock and Philosophy is not without some misses. A repetitive, vapid essay on Marxism and the Vox Populi revolution — written by two Ithaca College grads, natch — rehashes the game to make no-shit-Sherlock conclusions; the ink would have been better spilled on, say, analyzing Columbia through the lens of Edward Bellamy’s utopian socialism, or a Marxist/leftish critique of the Fraternal Order of the Raven and real-world Lincoln demonization (particularly by paleolibertarians). Absence of a thing is not a valid criticism of that thing, but along those lines I was surprised that neither BioShock 2 nor the Burial at Sea DLCs are mentioned much; BioShock 2 reimagines Rand’s feud with BF Skinner, while Burial at Sea apparently negates the ending of Infinite (something that would undoubtedly intrigue Scott Squires and James McBain, who didn’t care for Infinite‘s deterministic universe). Including that content would have provided richer interpretations to some of the essays.
The fact that I have invested waaaay too much time and thought into the BioShock games is a testament to how immersive they are. I never played the games in order; I was first sucked into BioShock Infinite primarily on the basis of a trailer, and immediately became absorbed by its mashup of steampunk with Colonial Revival architecture, quantum physics and all its implications, themes of American Exceptionalism and evangelical millennialism, and its leitmotif of guilt, penance, and absolution. Also, there were the parts where I could swing around on skylines and blow up zeppelins. Later I became intrigued by the setting (and not so much the game itself) of the original BioShock, and I only wish I could have submitted an essay to Cuddy on the historical utopianism of man-made islands and undersea habitats (because from Jules Verne to the Neolithic crannogs of Britain and Ireland, the idea of a better society has very often been wedded to water). No doubt contributor Laszlo Kajtar feels me. As he points out, it is not the book that matters so much as the reading of it; it is not the painting but rather our viewing of the painting that affects us. Like all art, games are necessarily subjective — it is our experience with them that provokes and seduces. And some of them, like a syringe full of EVE, get under the skin.
Criticism of seasteading now takes on an oddly strident tone, and from unusual sources.
A week after reporting on DeltaSync’s Seasteading Implementation Plan, Global Construction Review, an online publication of Britain’s Chartered Institute of Building, ran an attack on the idea as an abandonment of social responsibility. The publication’s editor, Rod Sweet, took time away from the business of covering engineering and construction to “to lay bare the motivation behind the movement—the libertarian urge for the freedom to profit without having to contribute to the social conditions that make profit possible.”
Any news story about seasteading invariably descends into Rapture jokes in the comments but there’s nothing inherently libertarian about man-made islands. You could just as easily use the technology for a floating kibbutz as for an art-deco Galt’s Gulch. Even one of seasteading’s major advocates has said, “We can’t build libertopia … Whatever we build will have to have security forces who will bust in your door if they think you’re designing nuclear weapons or funding terrorism.”
Regardless of seasteading’s practicality (while cautiously intrigued, I have several unanswered questions about it myself), it is disturbing that scientific futurism is met so reactionarily — especially by readers and writers of speculative fiction (to see examples by readers, check out the comments sections of any io9 article on these subjects). Setting aside the questions of when and why did libertarians become bogeymen to the left (Radley Balko keeps a list), what the hell happened to sci-fi? Are Martian colonies not dismissed as libertarian conspiracies because they are decades away while Bitcoin, etc. are happening now or very soon? When did imagining a better world of tomorrow go from Heinlein to thought-crime? After all, the first proponent of oceanic utopianism was the 19th-century hero of the left, Jules Verne, who inspired those seeking an escape from the -isms of capital and czar:
“Also,” [Nemo] added, “true existence is there; and I can imagine the foundations of nautical towns, clusters of submarine houses, which, like the Nautilus, would ascend every morning to breathe at the surface of the water — free towns, independent cities.”
My story “Rio Grande” appears in the new alternate-history anthology, Altered America. Gambling gunfighter Lorenzo seeks vengeance against a card sharp in the Republic of the Rio Grande, an independent country based on the economic principles of Frederic Bastiat:
“When the Republicans defeated the Mexican army at Morales, everyone knew it was only a matter of time before Mexico tried again. They realized our little breakaway estado could only be held by force. Force means men. So they encouraged homesteading to grow the population. They tried various policies for a few years but nothing worked. Everyone wanted to go to California instead. Finally President Jordan discovered the writings of a French philosopher named Bastiat. This philosopher advocated free exchange. No taxes. No tariffs. No customs. A strictly confined government. ‘Law is organized justice,’ said the philosopher — anything beyond that is perversion. So they scrapped everything and started over with a new constitution based on his writings and principles. They advertised it in all the eastern newspapers. Cheap land. Live tariff free. Women can vote. And where there are women, there are men and soon enough children who grow up to defend against Mexico. Then there weren’t enough branches in the trees to beat back the settlers.”
“But how do you pay for the judges and the marshals? Who builds the courthouses?”
“The philosopher wasn’t against taxes so much as their unfair and arbitrary application,” said Valasquez. “So to keep everyone honest, there are none to begin with. Citizens can make donations. But that’s exactly how Jordan managed to convince his caudillo supporters to agree to the constitution. It meant only self-sufficient people could afford to be judges and marshals.”
“Only the wealthy, you mean.”
“How is that worse than America?”
Alien Space Bats maybe, but I’ve often wondered why banana-republic rebellions usually take such a distinctly left-hand turn. The answer, I suppose, is Marxism’s empty pledge to eliminate the elite classes, a mistake based on the assumption that class derives from economic systems rather than being a natural by-product of state-level civilization.
To the freedom-friendly novelist, one further advantage of historical fiction is that the entire history of mankind is jam-packed with tragic examples of what Hayek called “the fatal conceit” and the corrupting effects of power — especially state power.
It’s worth reading her whole essay, though I’m not sure what business Fortier has throwing speculative fiction under the bus after writing a whole book about a mythological matriarchy (for all of her self-satisfaction, it seems Fortier hasn’t learned that genre — the difference of where you’re shelved in the bookstore — is simply packaging). But she’s right: history shows that power disparities are inevitable once a certain complexity of social organization is reached, and the key is not a false promise of eradicating those disparities but rather blunting power so that it does the least harm.