Stranger Things “’80s Posters”

What a neat idea. The official Stranger Things Twitter account is promoting #StrangerThursdays, which involves a rewatch of each episode of the first season on every Thursday, live tweets with commentary, and behind the scenes details. The best part is that they start each episode by revealing a new Stranger Things poster inspired by an ’80s film that influenced the show. I’ll update this post as the posters roll out each Thursday. Here are the two from August 3 and 10.

“Stand by Us” (August 3)

Modeled on Stand by Me.

“A Nightmare on Mirkwood” (August 10)

Derived from Nightmare on Elm Street.

Science Fiction Pick List

To complement my eight fantasy picks, here are my sci-fic choices. I’m a bit eclectic when it comes to sci-fic. You won’t find anything by Heinlein, Asimov, or Niven here.

dune

1. Dune, Frank Herbert. 1965. What makes Dune the best science fiction novel is its disdain for the science fiction vision. Robots, computers, and cyberwars are non-existent, and in their place are clairvoyants, messiahs, and jihads. By creating a cosmos which has rejected the machine, Herbert was able to focus on religious and social issues without interference of techno-glam, and in particular to show the tensions inherent in charismatic messiah movements. Paul Atreides/Muad’Dib is the living contradiction of an elite duke and low-life prophet, and though a savior of the oppressed, will lead a jihad that will kill sixty billion people. Herbert did for sci-fic what Tolkien did for fantasy, building a world so convincing it may as well be real. For years I’ve dreamed of planet Arrakis, where water is precious as gold and sandworms are the size of skyscrapers. And which of course is the only source of the addictive spice (the One Ring of sci-fic if there ever was one), which prolongs life, heightens awareness, and even makes interstellar travel possible. Dune is impossible to stop thinking about when I read it. It contains ideas that are as relevant today as they were fifty years ago. The sequels aren’t so impressive. Only the first book makes my list.

2. The Gap Cycle, Stephen R. Donaldson. 1990-1996. This five-volume homage to Wagner’s Ring is not only the darkest, nastiest sci-fic in existence, but probably the darkest, nastiest work of fiction period. Everyone is mean-spirited to the core; allies are as deadly as enemies, if not more so, including the galactic police director who puts a cop through rape and worse hell to achieve justice. No one has so much a decent thought. Perhaps every hundred pages, a character will say something close to nice and you sigh in appreciation. Donaldson has always been a depressing writer, but he set a new bar in the Gap Cycle. And the suspense levels are insane; the narrative crescendos enough to give you panic attacks. I was hyperventilating during the race to escape Thanatos Minor. Every corner of that planetoid remains burned in my mind’s eye, especially the self-mutilation stage in the Ease ‘n’ Sleaze bar. Crazy as it sounds, I love the central character of Angus. He’s scum, but as a cyborg bereft of free will I feel for him. The Gap Cycle is a brilliant space opera about evil authorities, and terrifying aliens, and vile people caught in between. Humanity’s hope? An abused woman who must navigate the machinations of all three. I doubt I’ll read anything like it again.

3. Cluster & Chaining the Lady, Piers Anthony. 1977, 1978. No one ever talks about the Cluster trilogy anymore, and it needs rescuing from obscurity. It’s better than many of today’s sci-fic efforts and comes from a time when writers weren’t afraid to take certain risks. The premise is that spiritual possession is the most effective way to space travel, as it allows people to send their kirlian auras (what we think of as “souls”) across vast distances, safely, instantly, and at little cost while their bodies stay behind. Their auras take possession of a host, alien or otherwise, though the takeover cannot be forced on a consciously unwilling subject. Possession is a bold idea in science fiction and allows Anthony protagonists (Flint in Cluster, Melody in Chaining the Lady) whose perspectives on other species, including their own, change according to the aliens they possess. The first two novels are the ones that make my cut. In Cluster Flint shags his way across the Milky Way, experiencing a rich variety of alien sex, and his mission ends on a murder mystery that keeps you guessing until the reveal. In Chaining the Lady the Andromeda Galaxy acquires the capability of forced possession, and Melody must go undercover on a battle ship to find out who the involuntary hosts are before their possessors take over the Milky Way. See my 40th anniversary retrospective for more details.

4. Ubik, Philip Dick. 1969. Only recently have I been turned on to Philip Dick, and Ubik is his best work, set in a future where some people have a natural ability to read minds or choose the future (psychics), and others are able to thwart those telepathic or precognitive powers (anti-psis). Security firms hire the latter to protect people’s privacy, and the plot involves one of these firms coming under attack. Its CEO is killed in a bomb explosion, and his employees store his corpse in a half-life mortuary so that his consciousness can live on. The employees then start to experience bizarre shifts in reality as the world regresses back in time to the year 1939. Maybe they are the ones who actually died in the explosion and got stored into half-life, and are now dreaming terrible events as their boss tries to reach them from the real world. Or maybe both died and are feeding off each others dreams. Adding to the tension is that one of the employees has a unique anti-psi talent that doesn’t just cause psychics to choose a different future; she can actually change the future by resetting the past. Is the time regression somehow on account of her? There doesn’t seem to be a coherent explanation that accounts for any one theory, but enough patterns to make any explanation plausible until you look real closely. Ubik is a pure mind fuck, and while it may not be Dick’s most popular novel, I think he outdid himself here.

ready_player_one_cover-image1

5. Ready Player One, Ernest Cline. 2011. This novel will give you an orgasm if you grew up in the ’80s playing D&D and primitive computer games, but even aside from this it has a wide range of appeal. For all the obscure pop-culture references, the plot isn’t confusing and the narrative moves like a bullet while leaving just the right breathing space for its characters. Their friendships in the virtual world feel real, because in some ways the OASIS is just as real. It’s where kids attend school online, where everyone plays games and retreats from the misery of reality. That reality is the setting of the 2040s, a future in which the earth’s energy resources and economy have all but collapsed, the vast majority of Americans are poor and live in “stacks”, vertical trailer parks where mobile homes are piled on top of each other. The quest for a Easter-Egg inside the galaxy of the OASIS carries the reward of a billionaire’s legacy, including complete control of that virtual reality. A corrupt corporation wants the control, to charge for access, and prevent people from using it anonymously, and in the race for the Egg they locate and kill others — not just avatars, but the people hiding behind them in the real world. The virtual recreation of the Tomb of Horrors is for me one of the most gratifying chapters I’ve read in a novel.

6. Hyperion-Endymion, Dan Simmons. 1989-1997. The four books are almost equally good while stylistically different. Hyperion is a Canterbury Tales-like recounting of six stories, told by each of the Shrike pilgrims. The Fall of Hyperion takes these strands and runs them into a single blistering narrative as the fabric of the universe is torn apart. Endymion picks up centuries later, in a regressed universe ruled by the Catholic church, and consists of a river chase through portals to different planets, reminiscent of Huckleberry Finn. The Rise of Endymion involves the defeat of the church and a woman’s sacrifice to the Inquisition. My favorite is The Fall of Hyperion — Simmons never takes his foot off the gas in that book — but they all make this cut. I could never fully understand the Shrike, the spiked humanoid that seems to be a force for good as much as evil. He impales victims on his Tree of Pain, and gives them the “Merlin sickness” (a reverse aging process by which after being touched, every morning you wake up a day younger with no memory of the lost days nor anything that had happened since being touched; to the horror and pain of family and friends who have to explain every morning what happened to you, as you regress back to a teen to a kid to a baby). It seems to be a program designed to ensure the evolution of the AIs while also keeping them in check, and it helps people as as often as it hurts them depending on its perceived goal.

dragonflight

7. Dragonflight & Dragonquest, Anne McCaffrey. 1968, 1971. The Pern series devolved into a lame franchise, but the first two books are top-notch survivalist sci-fic. The plotting is tight and the writing honest, by that meaning McCaffrey portrayed believable gender roles without kneeling at the feminist altar. She also took a big risk with the dragon-rider concept, as it’s so easy to go wrong with. The Dragonlance novels in the ’80s turned dragons into the functional equivalents of war steeds — an insult to the creatures whose pride would never allow for it. Dragons accept riders only by exacting a high price from them, which in Pern is a permanent telepathic link in which rider and dragon share all their feelings and sufferings. Those feelings extend to lust, which has become something of a bone of contention among the politically correct. Dragonriders succumb to sex with each other during the mating flights of their dragons, overcome with sexual desire for each other often against their will. Lessa’s relationship with F’lar is described in terms of rape, and that’s indeed the premise. Around these dynamics, the dragonriders work against impossible odds to solve the problem of Thread, which in Dragonflight ends in Lessa’s time-travel centuries back to bring help forward, and in Dragonquest F’nor’s even more suicidal flight to the Red Star to wipe out the source of Thread itself.

8. The Man Who Folded Himself, David Gerrold. 1973. It’s surprising how good this book is considering the skeleton narrative. It’s a novella with a single character (aside from the brief appearance of a lawyer) and has a rather staged feeling to it. But it takes on enormous themes — time travel, paradoxes, free will — as the protagonist interacts with past and future versions of himself. And it’s a love story at heart, as the man falls in love with himself in various time streams. He starts as most people would do if they suddenly acquired a time-traveling device: betting on sports events he already knows the outcome to, making himself a millionaire. But as he becomes gradually bored by wealth, he decides that he wants to have sex with his past and future selves, including mass orgies with himselves from different time streams. Eventually, as he changes events in so many time streams he creates a female version of himself, with whom he has a child. It turns out to be a very powerful narrative of a man searching for self and meaning, not to mention coming to terms with his homoerotic desires, which in 1973 was an unusual move in a novel. I was once asked the five things I would do if I could go back in time, and indeed the two at the top of my list were to make more money for myself, and to bang myself.

Retrospective: Cluster

“In Canopus I learned that to be humanoid was not to be superior; in Spica I found three sides to any question; in Polaris I appreciated circularity.” (Flint of Outworld)

No one ever talks about the Cluster trilogy anymore, and for the life of me I don’t get it. It’s better than a lot of today’s sci-fic efforts and comes from a time when writers weren’t afraid to take certain risks. Some of the ideas went over my 12-year old head and surprised me on the reread 40 years later. I suspect the name of Piers Anthony puts people off, and understandably. His Xanth series has gotten out of hand and was never that good to begin with. But the ’70s were his golden age, and the Cluster trilogy needs rescuing from obscurity. The three books are Cluster (1977), Chaining the Lady (1978), and Kirlian Quest (1978), and this retrospective honors the first for its 40th anniversary.

The premise of the series is that spiritual possession is the most effective way to space travel given the problems of every other method. Teleportation is too expensive (costing up to trillions of dollars per person), freezer ships too dangerous (1 in 3 lifeforms perish en route), and lifeships too slow (decades have passed by the time passengers disembark). Spiritual transfer allows people to send their kirlian auras (what we think of as “souls”) across vast distances — safely, instantly, and at little cost while their bodies stay behind. Their auras take possession of a host, alien or otherwise, though the takeover cannot be forced on a consciously unwilling subject. That’s a bold premise for science fiction, and it allows Anthony protagonists whose perspectives on other species, including their own, change according to the aliens they possess.

In Cluster that protagonist is Flint, a Solarian (human) recruited by his government to bring the secret of spirit transfer to the other spheres in the Milky Way. (See image left: sphere Sol is the galaxy’s human sphere, which contains “our” solar system.) The mission is to liberate the spheres from isolationism and unite them in cause against the Andromeda Galaxy. Andromeda already has the technology for spiritual transfer, and is plotting to steal the Milky Way’s energy sources. Flint’s soul is sent to various spheres, and he is chased by the soul of an Andromeda agent who is also in the disguise of native hosts. The result is an unusual space thriller featuring a reckless hero unsure of himself, as he finds himself hostage to the views, impulses, and feelings of his host bodies. He has a particularly grand time shagging his way through the Cluster.

Shag hero?

That’s sort of what Flint is. In three spheres (Spica, Polaris, and Mintaka) he engages in sex, and in the case of Spica he becomes a rapist, forcing himself on others not once or even twice, but an outrageous three times. The Spicans are fin-propelled humanoids who live on water planets, and their species consists of three genders: Impacts, Undulants, and Sibilants. Sexual intercourse is a three-way affair, impossible with two, but compulsive the moment a third appears, and so most areas on the planets are zoned so that only two genders are allowed together at any time. The presence of three makes sex literally impossible to resist for all members, as one takes the role of the sire (“father”), another the parent (“mother”), and another the catalyst. Intercourse involves the merging of the chests/torsos of all three, initiated by the catalyst who throws itself at the other two, so that the flesh of all three mesh and heave and overlap. When sex is completed, a chunk of flesh breaks off mostly from the sire, and some from the parent, producing the offspring who is nurtured by the parent. What’s interesting is that the genders don’t determine the sire, parent, and catalyst; it’s rather the position of each and the manner in which they come together. An Impact can be a sire just as easily as a parent or a catalyst, and same for Undulants and Sibilants.

Flint, in the body of an Impact, comes upon an Undulant and Sibilant, and is assaulted by urges he can barely comprehend. He instinctively assumes the role of the catalyst, launching himself at the other two, merging and sucking their flesh into his, and in the end leaves the Sibilant (the parent) with a child. That’s his first rape. He is later arrested for his crime by two Impact officials, and evades them by doing the unspeakable in that culture – having sex with two individuals of like gender. Here’s how that rape is described:

“Whereupon he invoked the most disgusting crime of which a Spican sapient is capable. He fushed [homosexually raped] them. He visualized them as a Sibilant and an Undulant, himself as the catalyst, and puffed out his body perimeter to intersect theirs. He overlapped them both, then contracted, hauling them together inside his flesh. The act was appalling. Only in the filthiest of jokes was it even conceivable. A wave of intense revulsion almost overwhelmed the mind of his host. This was despicable homosexual rape! But Flint, desperate, forced the two to intersect each other. Then he expelled them violently, firing them through the water, linked to each other. Both Impacts were unconscious, overcome by sheer shock and horror. And Flint was now twice guilty of a capital offense. His Impact brain urged immediate penance in the form of suicide. He hated himself, but he swam on.”

It’s worth noting that in the Cluster spheres homosexuality seems to be a universal taboo, and while some have claimed this reflects a homophobia on the part of Piers Anthony, it makes perfect sense regardless. The primary drive of every species is to reproduce; same-gendered sex would be reviled as abnormal by at least many intelligent lifeforms who can form concepts, at least until they evolve by more open-minded concepts.

As if that weren’t enough, Flint rapes a third time, when he discovers an Undulant named Llynana whom he suspects is possessed by a kirlian transfer like himself — and that she is the same entity who had followed him to sphere Canopus and tried to kill him. He drags her to an area where they find a Sibilant, and positions himself so that the Sibilant is forced to be the catalyst, himself the sire, and she the parent:

“The throes of mergence were upon them. Llyana was struggling. ‘This — this — I am being violated!’ she protested. ‘Who are you? What are you doing?’

” ‘I am Sissix the Sibliant,’ the catalyst replied. ‘Let the inquest show that I did not seek this union. Nevertheless I do not protest it; you are both handsome specimens.’ Actually the catalyst had little reason to protest; catalysm was as close to completely free pleasure as the world provided. The parent was responsible for the offspring, and the sire gave a healthy chunk of his flesh. The catalyst experienced the same triple orgasm but without penalty.

” ‘Your motions only enhance the interaction,’ Flint told Llyana, knowing this was like telling the victim of ongoing rape not to struggle.

” ‘This — this is mating!’ she screamed, shocked. They were all now overlapping each others’ nervous systems. Flint had never before experienced such extreme pleasure. In the human body, the joys and pains of various experiences were actually self-generated. No actual transfer of sensation occurred, merely external stimulus. But here there was the enveloping joy of literal mergence, of becoming one with one’s species. Sissix and Llyana pooled their nervous impulses with Flint’s to make a symphonic unity of amazing depth and intensity. In his first rape, when he had been the inadvertent catalyst, he had been too revolted by the concept to appreciate the pleasure; now he relished it.”

And because the literal fusion of Spican intercourse is spiritual as much as biological, Flint is able to ascertain that Llyana’s soul has indeed been supplanted by that of an alien agent, later confirmed to be from the Andromeda galaxy. But even more: his rape of Andromeda/Llyana carries a devastating consequence. Forcing a child on her, the Andromeda agent becomes hostage to the emotional bond between her host body and the child, which prohibits her chasing after Flint’s soul to another planet. To her outrage, she feels compelled to stay inside Llyana on the Spican planet and nurture this undesired child. This shows how risky possession is: the hard-wired instincts of the unconscious host can override the will of the possessor.

Flint is a bastard in his parting blow. “Enjoy your motherhood,” he tells Andromeda, who can only swear at him furiously (to which he amusingly scolds her, “Please, not in front of the child”). Rape heroes are rare these days in sci-fic and fantasy, having gone out of fashion since the pulp years. While rapists have become more common as lead characters since Game of Thrones, they are usually understood to be vile. Flint is more like Conan than Jaime Lannister, someone you thrill to, and that sort of protagonist tends to be resented today.

Sexual debt

In the sphere of Polaris things go the consensual way. Flint is learning to discipline his foreign impulses, but he is also greeted by the tender Polarian whose life he saved at the start of the novel. She saved his life too (they were attacked by a wild beast on his home planet), and in Polarian culture, mutual aid escalates debt rather than cancels it, requiring an abatement through the act of sex. That was impossible on Flint’s planet, since Tsopi had physically traveled there as a Polarian, and obviously different species can’t cross-breed. With Flint now inside a Polarian host, Tsopi makes her claim on him.

“You and I saved each other’s lives, and so we owe each other our lives. A mutual debt, very hard to repay. Now, in your thrust culture [Solarian], you would call that self-canceling. Equal and opposite forces. But in our circular culture [Polarian], it starts quite a spiral. Equal and opposite thrusts applied to two sides of a wheel and make it roll twice as fast.”

The “circular” mindset mirrors the Polarian physiology. They look like huge dinosaur droppings at first blush (see image below), with wheels on the bottom and small communication balls on top of their trunks. They roll, not walk, and their thinking is less straightforward, their attitudes as a result more open-minded. Tsopi explains how Polarians live through cycles of relationships rather than lasting ones:

“You [Solarians] are an expansive, extroverted species, but also strongly introverted, alienophobic. Your mating pattern reflects this. You seek a stranger for the purpose of procreation, then establish lifelong liaison with that stranger. To us that seems extreme. We [Polarians] prefer familiar matings, but we form no restrictive relation. Our love is intense while it endures. At the end, there is a child, and all debts have been expiated by that act of creation. The chapter is finished; we never mate again with the same partners.”

Flint, moved by this, agrees to satisfy the debt between them. Here is the sex scene:

“Tsopi laid down her provocative taste, and Flint augmented it with his own. The two trails fed off each other, building up the mood layer by layer as the two wheels spiraled inward toward the center. At last they met. Flint’s trunk and Tsopi’s tail twined together, and their two balls touched each other in an electrifying spinning kiss. Flint found that his body needed no instruction. As with Solarians and all other species both sapient and animal, nature sufficed. Yet the steps of it astonished the human fragments of his mind. For at the height of his passion, Flint lay down and released his wheel. He had not realized that this was possible; he had supposed it was an inseparable part of his anatomy. Now it rolled slowly across the floor away from him leaving him lame.

“She lay down opposite him and moved close. Flint took the exposed portion of her wheel into his vacant wheel chamber. The sensations were intensified excruciatingly, for they were direct; her secretions with his without being diluted by an intervening surface. Trunk and tail reached around to twine together, drawing the connection tight.

“Now the real action began. The rim of Flint’s torso met the rim of Tsopi’s, sealing all the way around their mutual sphere, so that none of it was exposed to the air. The two of them spun it, rapidly. More rapidly than possible in any individual situation, for the wheel controlling mechanisms of both parties were operating in tandem. The wheel spun so fast in grew warm, then hot. Both Flint and Tsopi excreted extra fluid to bathe that sphere in its sealed chamber and alleviate friction, but still the heat increased. At last something within the wheel reacted. There was an electrochemical shift, as of a fire flaring up. It was the climax, that first stirring of buried animation. There was an instant of almost unbearable rapture as the shock went through the mass, then exhaustion.

“Flint and Tsopi fell apart. The wheel rolled free of both of them, steaming. And while they struggled to regain their strength, complicated by the absence of their wheels, through which they normally ate, respired, and eliminated, the loose mass began to shake and flex as though something inside were trying to get out. It did not break open like a hatched egg; it elongated and unfolded, stage by stage, until it emerged complete, sculpted by the hand or wheel of nature: a young Polarian.”

Flint then reclaims his wheel, while Tsopi, now wheel-less, removes his communication ball. In Polarian sex the male becomes mute afterwards (until he grows another communication ball), while the female suffers confinement: the removed communication ball is inserted down below to become her new wheel, that she can barely be upright on until it grows to full size. There’s a biological symmetry to this — the seed starts with the male’s communication ball and eventually becomes a female’s new wheel, varying the gene pool, since the same couples never mate twice.

The Polarians seem to be Anthony’s secret heroes — Tsopi in Cluster and Llume (especially) in Chaining the Lady. I like the idea of circular thought culture and wish the author had developed it more. It’s noted for example how sex-debt is alien to humans like the concept of voting makes no sense to a Polarians, for whom the interests of a single individual take precedence over the will of the majority. When Flint counters how stupid that is — that government must be democratic and serve the good of the greatest number — Tsopi explains that Polarians have a natural inclination to overcoming disagreement through accommodation and mutual respect. It’s a great idea to run with, but it’s kept in the abstract.

Genre blending

After being mired on Spica for months (thanks to Flint raping her and giving her a child), the Andromeda agent is able to break free of her host and continue her mission against the Milky Way — this time as an impersonator rather than a possessor. When the Nathian government discovers an ancient site of technology on the planet of Hyades, the Milky Way governments send representatives to investigate — from Canopus, Sol, Polaris, Antares, Spica, Nath, Mirzam, and Mintaka. Flint is the Sol rep, and they are in their true forms, having been teleported rather than soul-transferred. When they arrive, the Mirzamite is found slain, and the mission turns into a murder mystery. It’s clear the killer has to be one of them since there are no life forms on Hyades. But who of the seven and why?

It’s good genre blending and keeps you guessing until the reveal. The seven members cross-examine each other, querying alibis, testing their knowledge of the species they claim to represent. Later the Antarean is found dead, and it still looks like anyone could be the killer. The Mintakan finally slips by saying “concurrence”, which is the term used by Andromedans to voice agreement — as Flint knows, having dealt with the agent before — and it dawns on him that the Mirzamite was killed right away because Mirzamites are the only species who know what Mintakans really look like (because their spheres border each other). The “Mintakan” is none other than the Andromedan agent in its true form. Challenged at last, she dishes out some serious whup-ass, taking down the Spican, Polarian, Nathian, and Flint himself before the insectoid Canopian — the only remaining survivor — is able to destroy her.

That’s not the end though. In the final chapter we get to see what Mintakans really look like, as Flint wakes up inside the body of one. He died in the Hyades showdown, but the activated technology beamed his soul to the (supposed) world of his killer — his last dying thought. The Mintakans are by far Anthony’s most memorable creation, amalgams of musical instruments; they speak with music, create it as they move, open doors with song, and exude it like Solarians exhale carbon dioxide.

“His body was astonishing. Whenever he moved, he jangled, beeped, and boomed. His several feet were little clappers, supporting a triple web of taut wires like three harps. Fitted within the inner curves of these were tiers of drum diaphragms. Strong tubular framing provided resonance for moving air with reeds. In short, he was an animate orchestra. He had some kind or sonar/radar perception, and used it to orient himself. This had to be a Mintakan host. The ancient arena had really been a transfer station whose destination was controlled by the thought of the transferee. He was thinking of Mintaka as he died — and here he was. His human body had been blasted apart, and no one at home would know what had really happened to him. He had, in his fashion, gone to heaven.”

Except that the devil has ridden his coat tails. The Andromeda agent is there right beside him, also having been killed in the Hyades battle and soul-transferred. As they argue with each other, their hatred lessens, partly in the knowledge their souls will soon die since their native bodies have, but also as they become attracted to each other in the Mintakan form:

“As he played his comment, she accompanied with a haunting tune of agreement. The sheer beauty of the impromptu startled him. When Mintakans communicated, they really did make music together. It was far superior to the human forms, both as dialogue and music. In that affinity of sound, he realized how lovely she could be when she chose.”

And with that, in the final pages, Flint and his nemesis come to an understanding. They agree the ancient secrets they discovered are too dangerous in the hands of either galaxy. Before dying, they mate — consensually this time — and produce an offspring who will become the ancestor of Melody of Mintaka, the protagonist of Chaining the Lady. What fails in trashy Harlequin romances (women who reconcile or fall in love with their rapists) works in a context of inter-species hosting, where biochemical thought patterns are radically altered.

Verdict

Take Cluster off your shelf and relive Flint’s galactic mission. It’s a great novel for its interrogation of inter-species perspective, the premise of spirit possession, and arresting portrayals of alien sex. Throw in an explosive murder mystery, and you have a mighty damn good story.

Rating: 4 ½ stars out of 5.

Salon on “New Atheism” and the Alt-Right (Michael Turton’s Reply)

On his Facebook page, Richard Carrier linked to a Salon article, “From the Enlightenment to the Dark Ages: How New Atheism Slid into the Alt-Right”, with approval. Like most Salon articles it’s garbage, and Michael Turton wrote a lengthy rebuttal in the FB comments. I’ve pasted his comments below (Carrier’s FB page is public), and added a few observations of my own in bold.

[Turton] Let’s look at the article as the lifelong atheist and political activist and popular niche blogger that I am. After three paragraphs of Harris’ views on Islam (but note, we get no evidence that this is a problem for “the movement” or “the leaders”, just Harris), we get this:

[Salon] This resulted in an exodus of women from the movement who decided that the “new atheist” label was no longer for them. (I know of many diehard atheist women who wanted nothing to do with “new atheism,” which is a real shame.)

[Turton] No evidence is presented for this “exodus”.

[Salon] Along these lines, the new atheist movement has flirted with misogyny for years. Harris’ “estrogen vibe” statement — which yielded a defense rather than a gracious apology — was only the tip of the iceberg. As mentioned above, there have been numerous allegations of sexual assault, and atheist conferences have pretty consistently been male-dominated — resulting in something like a “gender Matthew effect.”

[Turton] This isn’t a problem with the New Atheist movement. This is a problem with Skepticism in general. I believe the anthropologist David Hess wrote Science in the New Age, which discusses the gendered/gender problem in Skepticism almost 25 years ago. This is not a new issue. Obviously, the author does not understand the issue he is addressing or how the New Atheists are connected to it.

[Salon] Many leading figures have recently allied themselves with small-time television personality Dave Rubin, a guy who has repeatedly given Milo Yiannopoulos — the professional right-wing troll who once said that little boys would stop complaining about being raped by Catholic priests if the priests were as good-looking as he is — a platform on his show. In a tweet from last May, Rubin said “I’d like a signed copy, please” in response to a picture that reads: “Ah. Peace and quiet. #ADayWithoutAWoman.” If, say, Paul Ryan were asked, he’d describe this as “sort of like the textbook definition of a misogynistic comment.” Did any new atheist leaders complain about this tweet? Of course not, much to the frustration of critical thinkers like myself who actually care about how women are treated in society.

[Turton] “Many leading figures have allied…” No evidence is presented for “leading figures” who are “allied”. Connecting Milo to the New Atheists in this way is a smear. “Did atheist leaders complain about this tweet?” Seriously? I doubt Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris spends much time combing the literally millions of tweets of other atheists for things to police them on. They have productive lives. And why would we expect them to complain about a tweet of someone whom the author himself identifies as a marginal figure (!). Excellent clickbait, that rhetorical question — it is so good the author resorts to it twice (“Has any leader….?”.) You could go on asking “Has any leader…?” rhetorical questions all day long. A question like that is designed to emotionally appeal to the article’s target audience, without actually making any survey or showing why anyone would bother to respond to a tweet from a marginal figure. As if silence constituted endorsement.

Turton is right that connecting Milo to the new atheist movement is a ludicrous smear, but I would also point out that Dave Rubin runs a good show, and he is to be commended for having Milo Yiannopoulos on as a guest, just as Bill Maher did on Real Time. Reason being: when leftists try shouting down and silencing people — even idiot trolls like Milo — it becomes virtuous to give a platform to those idiots you would otherwise ignore. Chris Hayes made the same point about the “Draw Muhammad cartoon” contest held in Garland Texas two years ago (and it was refreshing to see a liberal like Hayes school his fellow leftists). When jihadists respond to cartoons of Muhammad by killing people, it’s necessary to be offensive and draw more cartoons, otherwise you’re catering to sharia blasphemy law and letting jihadists rule you through fear. Or, as Hayes made the analogy with his own profession, if he were considering doing a segment that he was on the fence about or didn’t even like, but then someone came to him and said, “You can’t do that segment because of an advertiser”, then he would absolutely do the segment, because “It has to be the case that we can do that segment”.

Ditto for Milo. Neither Dave Rubin nor Bill Maher make a habit of inviting trolls, but they will when everyone else resorts to thuggish silencing strategies that are only getting worse on college campuses. Objections about being inflammatory, or unfair to an advertiser, etc., go straight out the window at the moment the aggrieved group tells you to stop or be stopped, to submit or be killed, etc.

[Salon] In fact, the magazine Skeptic just published a glowing review of Yiannopoulos’ recent book, “Dangerous.” The great irony of this intellectual misstep is that Yiannopoulos embodies the opposite of nearly every trend of moral progress that Michael Shermer, the editor of Skeptic, identifies in his book “The Moral Arc.”

[Turton] (1) One author at Skeptic appears to like Milo… clearly this means that the New Atheist movement loves Milo. Can the author show us numerous New Atheist personalities who like Milo? Nope. (2) Do New Atheists control the editorial decision-making of The Skeptic? I think not, which means that — you guessed it — this is a smear, typical of Salon clickbait articles. Even better, the piece has a clickbait image at the top that puts Harris together with Milo the idiot. But it is photoshopped. A smear so obvious no one noticed it.

[Salon] Perhaps the most alarming instance of irrationality in recent memory, though, is Sam Harris’ recent claim that black people are less intelligent than white people.

[Turton] The author then spends four paragraphs explaining to us about IQ and race. Harris’ views are totally nutcase and evil. Are they widely held in the New Atheist movement or among its leaders? It is not difficult to find Dawkins saying that race is real but meaningless. Obviously, if Harris being an idiot proves that the New Atheists are evil racists, why doesn’t Dawkins saying race is meaningless prove the opposite?

Moreover, Hitchens, whom the author mentions, has written abusively about the idiocy of the race-IQ connection:

“There is, and there always has been, an unusually high and consistent correlation between the stupidity of a given person and that person’s propensity to be impressed by the measurement of I.Q.” [“Minority Report,” Nation, 11/28/94]

“Linguistics, genetics, paleontology, anthropology: All are busily demonstrating that we as a species have no objective problem of ‘race.’ What we still do seem to have are all these racists.” [“Minority Report,” Nation , 11/28/94]

Again, very obviously — if a “leader” of the movement asserting X means the whole movement is X, then why doesn’t Hitchens’ savage denunciation of that mean anything? Shouldn’t both Hitch and Dawkins’ remarks show that the New Atheist movement is solid on race? But no… painting Harris as a worshiper of Murray and a fool on race and IQ makes for much better clickbait. Salon’s clickbait articles work by rhetorical appeal to the “reasonable middle”. This is hardly the first such clickbait article on atheism at Salon, one reason I stopped reading Salon was because of the regular flow of such articles.

I agree with Turton that the sins of one person don’t reflect the views of a movement, but for the record, I seriously doubt that Sam Harris is, as Turton says, “totally nutcase and evil” on the subject of IQ and race. I admit I haven’t followed his views and interactions with Murray, but I have found that every time Harris is smeared on other subjects (like torture, or Islam), his views have either been distorted, exaggerated, or deliberately taken out of context. (Turton himself points this out in the case of Ben Carson below.)

Even Murray, while holding what I take to be incorrect views on the subject of race, has been overly maligned, and I doubt he is a racist. He’s an advocate for gay marriage and has two half-Asian kids for Christ’s sake. His error lies in dismissing the effects of socialization on race data, but his arguments should be rejected or upheld on the basis of scientific methodology, not political ideology. Reasoned refutations, not ad hominems and shut-down strategies, are the proper counters.

[Turton] Then comes this brilliance:

[Salon] On a personal note, a recent experience further cemented my view that the new atheists are guilty of false advertising. A podcaster named Lalo Dagach saw that I had criticized Harris’ understanding of Islamic terrorism, which I believe lacks scholarly rigor.

[Turton] The author spends two paragraphs discussing some marginal podcaster’s behavior towards the author as if that were somehow indicative of an entire movement. How? The podcaster is one marginal person. This personal digression is merely a bit of entitled whining about being attacked online that says nothing about New Atheism as a whole. If whipping up followers to attack people were a proclivity of New Atheists as a whole and the author could provide many examples, then perhaps this might have a place in this essay. Otherwise, no. It’s pure whining designed — once again — to appeal to the emotions of the audience which has already been nodding along. The author still hasn’t learned that if you jump in online, people are going to abuse you.

[Salon] From censoring people online while claiming to support free speech to endorsing scientifically unfounded claims about race and intelligence to asserting, as Harris once did, that the profoundly ignorant Ben Carson would make a better president than the profoundly knowledgeable Noam Chomsky, the movement has repeatedly shown itself to lack precisely the values it once avowed to uphold.

[Turton] This sweeping conclusion is hilarious and such stunningly obvious clickbait. “From censoring people online” — the author conflates his own experience with some nobody podcaster with the habits of the entire movement. You can’t “censor people online” unless you are the Communist Party of China and own the entire internet. Anyone can comment anywhere on the internet, at least in most of the West. Harris’s comments on race and Islam somehow stand for an entire movement. The provocative one on Ben Carson is especially hilarious, since Harris dismisses Carson as a nutcase in the very next sentence (which the author ignores, of course). Harris was obviously indulging in rhetoric to make a point about the “Islamic threat.” But obviously, it isn’t good clickbait to note that Harris was just being rhetorical.

Indeed. As I said above, Harris is regularly taken out of context, if not outright misrepresented. That tends to be what happens to those who speak unwelcome truths.

[Turton] If you are going to say “This movement is X and I don’t like it!” then you need to provide many examples/surveys etc that show that the whole movement is X. None are provided here, the article is simply a clickbait attack largely on Harris, designed to appeal to the audience of New Atheists like himself (and myself) who wish Harris would STFU about Islam and that they would address the mysogyny in the skeptic movement.

Turton is correct that the Salon article is a ridiculous hit piece on Harris. However, Harris should not stop speaking about Islam. His task has been a thankless one in explaining that (1) Islam has more dangerous and toxic ideas than other religions, (2) these ideas (jihad, sharia, geographical expansion) saturate the Qur’an, Hadith, and Sira, and thus have always been mainstream and mandatory in all Islamic schools of jurisprudence, and (3) they are believed and enacted on by a disproportionate number of Muslims (who may be a minority, but by no means the fringe). He should be applauded for this, along with Maajid Nawaz (Harris’ colleague), Asra Nomani, Aayan Hirsi Ali, and Bill Maher — people who are far more progressive than leftists who cry “Islamophobia” in the name of cultural tolerance.

(“Islamophobia” is a propagandist term in any case, intended to shut down criticism of the religion Islam in advance. The correct term for racism is “anti-Muslim bigotry”, just as we use “anti-Semitism” and not “Judaiaphobia”).

In sum, I agree with Michael Turton that the Salon article is worthless, but would go further in correcting the smears of certain individuals.

Do kids adventure anymore?

Yesterday a Facebook friend tried buying valve caps for her daughter’s bike in four different stores – including an actual bike shop – and none of the stores had any. The bike-shop owner lamented that kids “just don’t ride bikes anymore”, and that’s been true for many years now. I never see kids biking around the neighborhoods like my generation did growing up in the 70s and 80s. Helicopter parents don’t let their kids out of sight for a moment (fearing pedophiles on every corner) and keep them caged indoors. Watching a show like Stranger Things makes me feel nostalgic for my biking days as a kid, when the outdoors was a world to explore.

Another FB friend pointed out that paranoid parents are only part of the problem. In the internet age, kids themselves often prefer to spend the whole day online or texting or playing video, and need to be dragged away from their screens and gadgets. It makes me glad that I grew up in the age before internet and iPhones, or I might have had to be dragged as well. I’ll say this: I’d be a very different person today had I been hovered over as a kid and/or stayed indoors all the time — and a lot less independent minded.

I cherish my childhood memories. Between ages 8-13 I hiked (with friends, not parents) deep into the woods, played at the sand dunes, and biked around town. The most extreme example I can think of was the Halloween I went trick-or-treating with a friend in a faraway town we’d never been to. His parents drove us there, dropped us off in the dark, and then returned to pick us up much later. We joined a group of kids that my friend barely knew as we went from house to house, and at one point I got separated from my friend, which was scary because I had no idea where the hell I was. But it was fun scary, and luckily I didn’t stay lost in the dark in an unknown town. I caught up with him, and we figured out how to get back to the rendezvous where his parents came to pick us up.

That’s the sort of escapade kids don’t get to experience anymore!

Fantasy Pick List

A fantasy pick list from me is almost pointless, because aside from one obscurity it’s all the classics. So in my commentary I try to explain why these retain greatness in a genre flooded with formula and hack. I’m not biased toward any sub-genre. Represented here is mythic fantasy, portal fantasy, political fantasy, pulp fantasy, science fantasy, and coming-of-age fantasy. But none of this is popular fantasy. If you like the Shannara series, the Wheel of Time, the Sword of Truth, the Belgariad, the Kingkiller Chronicle, the tales of Drizzt, well, then this list isn’t for you.

See also my science fiction list.

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1. The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien. 1954-1955. What needs saying? I could go on about Tolkien’s meticulous crafting of Middle Earth, his prehistorical approach to myth and disdain for allegory, his linguistic brilliance, or his ear for the pagan epics. But it’s the long defeat theme more than anything else that sets Middle-Earth apart from feel-good fantasy. As a Catholic Tolkien thought history could only be a long defeat. Christian readers have claimed that Gandalf, Aragorn, and Frodo are Christ-figures, but they actually show the need for Christ as Tolkien saw it — noble and courageous, but ultimately hopeless against the forces of evil. That’s why Frodo was a failure, unable to resist the Ring when it mattered most. His quest was triumphant because of a fluke, or the intervention of fate made possible by mercy shown to Gollum. Sauron may have been defeated, but The Lord of the Rings is about everyone’s defeat: the suffering and passing of Frodo, the fading of the elves, and the foreordained deterioration of men in the Fourth Age. That’s what the Grey Havens is about, and it gets me every time. Even aside from all of this, on the strength of the narrative alone, The Lord of the Rings is the best story ever told.

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2. The Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, Stephen R. Donaldson. 1980-1983. Of the three chronicles, the first haven’t aged well and the third are a mixed bag. The second trilogy is the masterpiece and proves that sequels can be really good when authors push themselves. For all the first trilogy’s originality with the character of Thomas Covenant, it depends on a standard contest of muscle — armies fighting armies, with clear lines between good and evil. The second shows Donaldson completely on his own terms in a cross genre of fantasy-horror. I consider the Sunbane to be the most brilliant plot device after the One Ring, and it’s depressing as hell. The Wounded Land may well be the most depressing fantasy novel ever written, as we see the Land we grew to love in the first series poisoned in hideous cycles. The One Tree is even more mind-blowing, and it was an important milestone for me in my teen years. It turns the horror of The Wounded Land inward with self-scrutiny as Linden Avery relives her traumatic childhood over the course of a sea voyage. The quest’s failure at the isle of the One Tree is pure courageous tragedy, leaving Covenant no other option in White Gold Wielder than to surrender to Lord Foul in a desperate gambit so that Linden can heal the Land. This is a rare symphony in fantasy writing.

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3. A Song of Ice and Fire (Vols 1-3), George R.R. Martin. 1996-2000. Lord Lard may have lost his mojo in the recent volumes, but the first three remain the best political fantasy you’ll ever read, and the third in particular, A Storm of Swords, moves like a juggernaut. It’s famous for the Red Wedding, but the entire novel is a roller coaster of brutal twists spread over so many plots that miraculously don’t overburden the narrative. There is Jon’s story in the north, where after patient development over the previous two volumes, everything explodes, with the Others assaulting the Fist of the First Men, the wildlings assaulting the Wall, and Jon going from renegade to lord commander while nearly losing his life on both sides to get there. Dany shows her teeth in east, and I still get chills over her gambit to “give up” Drogon who roasts the slavers of Astapor. By the final pages virtually everyone important on the continent of Westeros is left dead, half-dead, or isolated. A Storm of Swords is the rare 1000-page monster that keeps landing bombshells and killing off characters you hate to love, and it pays off the developments of A Game of Thrones and A Clash of Kings that are almost just as excellent.

Silmarillion-cover

4. The Silmarillion, J.R.R. Tolkien. 1977. The tales of the First Age are almost as good as Lord of the Rings and in some ways better. The history resonates on a level that suggests this really is how our world began. The theme is the Fall, which shows how Middle-Earth aligns with the Christian myth without containing it. The elves fall from Valinor when they keep the Silmarilli gems and refuse to help the Valar against Morgoth; this mirrors the fall of humanity from Eden. They fall a second time when they recreate paradise in Middle-Earth by the power of the Three Rings (in Rivendell, Lothlorien, and at the Grey Havens). Men also fall again, when they grow dissatisfied with their island of Numenor, and sail for the Undying Lands to make war on the Valar. In each of the four falls, there is a reach for godhood: men want immortality and elves want to be gods of their own creations. The result is all the tragic tales in The Silmarillion — cycles of hopeless war on the Enemy, destined to be replayed again and again. The battles of Beleriand are epic and I hope to see one or more of them filmed someday, especially Fingolfin’s single combat with Morgoth. His death demoralizes the elves for the rest of the age, as it does to me whenever I read it.

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5. Stormbringer, Michael Moorcock. 1963. If you want nihilistic fantasy, you can’t get more devastating than Elric. But his final chapter (in a series of eight volumes) shares a premise with Lord of the Rings that often goes unnoticed. Elric’s purpose in wielding Stormbringer is somewhat like Frodo’s mission to destroy the Ring: both will defeat evil but in the process cause the passing of gifted races (the elves, the Melniboneans) who made amazing things possible on earth. Both create the basis for a new age, in which humanity has more of a fighting chance, without evil entities like Sauron and Arioch. The difference is that Elric’s world has to be destroyed first; the historical age won’t emerge gradually like it does out of Middle-Earth’s Fourth Age. After Elric defeats Chaos (or even if Chaos wins) he must wipe everything out so humanity can start over. Things are so bad that a purging is required — the equivalent of Noah’s flood — meaning that Elric’s world is fated to lose no matter what; it’s just a question of whether or not Chaos will continue dominating in the new age. There are scenes of repulsive horror in Stormbringer that left me poleaxed, like Elric’s wife changing into a huge worm from the neck down. It’s a rare fantasy that raises the stakes high and brings everything down so low without tripping over its ambitions.

6. The Book of the New Sun, Gene Wolfe. 1980-1983. Fans pour over this masterpiece like biblical exegetes do the letters of Paul. But really, I would advise not thinking about it so hard, at least not on first reading. Just take the story in. The narrative is immersive, the dialogue (which never flags) rich and organic, and Severian’s journey so phantasmagorical that you won’t want the spell broken by studying as you read. Severian ranks with anti-heroes like Covenant and Elric, a torturer exiled for the crime of showing mercy to a prisoner, and then sent to a city far north to assume the role of a public executioner. It’s a task he takes on willingly, but his ambitions are divided when he allies himself with an insurrectionist, falls in love with a young girl he accidentally resurrected (with an artifact he needs to get rid of but can’t), and wants to make peace with a woman who keeps trying to kill him. His ultimate trial is for nothing less than a new sun to save the planet. Fans keep debating if this is fantasy or science fiction. On the one hand it’s set on our planet (“Urth”) a million years in the future, with guns and spaceships; but few can access the technology, and there are also enchanted relics. The magical elements, the regressed medieval culture, and the mystical nature of Severian’s quest align with fantasy more than science fiction — it’s really “science fantasy” — and spread over four volumes, it’s the best the sub-genre has ever offered.

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7. The Seven Altars of Dusarra, Lawrence Watt-Evans. 1981. Ask fantasy readers if they’ve even heard of The Lords of Dus quartet and I guarantee you’ll get a blank stare. Even in my day it was an obscurity. The second book, The Seven Altars of Dusarra, is the one I read so many times as a teenager it was ridiculous. Garth the Overman has the personality of Conan, lives in a world like that of Fafhrd and Grey Mouser, and wields a sentient bloodthirsty sword that calls to mind Elric’s Stormbringer. Yet none of this feels like pastiche. Garth holds his own like the best of the pulp anti-heroes. He’s sent on a mission to steal whatever lies on the temple altars of seven nasty cults, and he does so with no scruples, relying on hack-and-slash, killing people, regretting it, and calling forth a citywide manhunt. I love the Dusarran pantheon, and the cults have some pretty ghastly rites. The priests of Andhur Regvos blind themselves, those of Sai practice torture and human sacrifice, those of P’hul have hideous skin diseases and enjoy spreading them, etc. On rereading this book in recent years I’d forgotten how much blood Garth spills without a second thought to get what he needs. On the other hand, I remember the strong D&D overtones. Garth’s mission is classic temple robbing, and this is the quintessential novel for old-school D&D players.

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8. The Last Battle, C.S. Lewis. 1956. I’m not a huge Narnia fan let alone enjoy kids books, but I do love The Last Battle. It might seem odd to compare it to Stormbringer (#5) but it is about the world’s destruction, and for a children’s book it certainly doesn’t soft-peddle the apocalyptic horrors. Precious Narnia is destroyed, Aslan’s cute little wayward animals are thrown into the apocalyptic incinerator, and even gentle Queen Susan gets the shaft — she is “no longer a friend of Narnia”, we are told, simply because she enjoys dating boys and having sex. If all of this seems monstrous, that’s much the point. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, apocalypses serve a hyper “justice” that redefines the word. From a dramatic point of view, The Last Battle‘s dark content is its strength, and something never seen in children’s literature on this scale. The Revelation-plotted narrative is a cracking suspense piece, as evil forces keep getting the upper hand against Narnia’s last king. The ape-ass duo (false prophet and anti-Christ) work their repulsive designs from inside a barn, which contains shifting terrors we can barely glimpse. There are no victories here, save Aslan’s at the end, which is glorious though in a very distressing way. Kids have been traumatized by this book and I’m not surprised.

On Ranking the World Religions

In Fuck it: Let’s Rank the Religions, Clickhole serves up the usual satire, ranking the world religions as follows:

1. Hinduism
2. Bahá’í
3. Judaism
4. Islam
5. Mormonism
6. Buddhism
7. Christianity
8. Sikhism
9. Shintoism
10. All the others

Here’s my more serious attempt at the exercise, though with tongue-in-cheek elements too. Sue me, I couldn’t resist.

1. Unitarian Universalism. 5 stars. I became a UU because I agree with its seven core principles: (1) the inherent worth and dignity of every person; (2) justice, equity and compassion in human relations; (3) acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in congregations; (4) a free and responsible search for truth and meaning; (5) the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within congregations and in society at large; (6) the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all; (7) respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. As UUs we ground these principles in humanistic teachings, science, nature and philosophy, personal experience, and sometimes even elements of the world religions.

Cons: Some UU’s are the greatest spiritual con-artists you’ll ever meet. We pretend that we’re religious (we’re actually more a social club), feign spirituality (whatever new-agism is in vogue), and cherish all religions (or at least pretend to) as having more or less equivalent worth, even knowing that it’s bullshit and that our secular values are far superior. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that UU’s are naturally humble and open-minded. We have egos the size of mountains.

2. Buddhism. 4 ½ stars. With its emphasis on meditation and mindfulness, Buddhism is a psychology as much as a religion, and in fact some of the spirituality of Buddhism is accessible in purely secular terms. Transformation through meditation doesn’t depend on the Buddhist faith, though they can go hand in hand. Even doctrines like reincarnation and rebirth have been easily discarded by many Buddhists without being seen as damaging the integrity of the religion. Though many scriptures have been preserved (the Pali Canon), there is no single holy book, which also helps account for its less dogmatic nature.

Cons: The lure of Buddhism is its philosophical maturity and benign tolerance that makes it stand out among the world religions. The cost is that Buddhism isn’t about a neat set of principles. You don’t “believe in the Buddha” for some benefit. Buddhism is about practice much more than belief, and it takes sustained effort to bring about enlightenment — if that comes at all — and it’s not easy.

3. Christianity. 4 stars. If the Buddha showed how to avoid suffering by rising above it (through detachment from the material world), the Christ reversed the cycle of suffering by rising from the dead. Christianity is arguably the religion which most strongly takes on the problem of suffering. The disciples considered persecution a badge of honor, which they were expected to go through without retaliating in violence. Even in the book of Revelation, the faithful don’t engage in holy war and are specifically told not to; they are to conquer the the Beast through witnessing and pacifist martyrdom. The concern for suffering accounts for Christianity’s attention to social justice, strong ethic of charity, and promises of the last being first. At the apocalypse wrongs will be righted and the dead will rise, and even if that’s a fantasy, it has yielded practical theologies about justice and mercy.

Cons: For all its ethic of charity and forgiveness and loving enemies, Christianity has some toxic ideas, the most virulent being homophobia. Unlike other transgressions, sodomy is seen less as a sin and more an indication that one is a reprobate beyond the pale. There has also been a heavy strain of anti-Semitism in Christianity, thanks primarily to the gospel passion narratives, though this has been reformed.

4. Judaism. 4 stars. What intrigues me most about Judaism is its tradition of arguing with and challenging God. Abraham bargained with God for the sake of decent citizens in Sodom and Gomorrah; Job protested the sufferings God dumped on him; etc. Arguments can even get physical, as when Jacob wrestled with an angel at the Jabbok River, and got his name changed to Israel (which means “one who wrestles with God”). The other two Abrahamic faiths (Christianity and Islam) require a complete surrender to faith/God, but there’s a lot more room for push-back in Judaism. God-wrestling is quite a different idea than being a slave to Christ or wholly submissive to the will of Allah. No doubt this tradition was strengthened over the centuries as the Jewish people kept getting the shaft.

Cons: Judaism has its toxic ideas like Christianity, but also that of sacred warfare which has made Zionism possible. While holy war has never been essential to Judaism (unlike Islam), and doesn’t command warfare to be waged beyond Israel’s borders, the injunction to “keep the land pure” is an ingredient that has been taken seriously in even the most dormant periods of the faith. In the medieval period, taking back the land of Israel remained theoretically possible, and the midrash practically shouts that “if the rabbis could have, they would have”. This is unlike the Christian crusades which grew out of many improbable factors and had no basis at all in Christian thought.

5. Taoism. 4 stars. Taoism values inwardness and non-action, which at first blush seems to be a great religion for those of us who believe there is no free will. Wu-Wei is “natural action” that doesn’t involve struggle or excessive effort, and produces a mental state in which human action is effortlessly aligned with whatever course life is taking. On the other hand, that somewhat misunderstands free will, which has nothing to do with activity vs. passivity; the option to be passive involves just as much a “choice” as that to be strenuously active. (It’s simply that these “choices” don’t involve free will.) Taoism emphasizes health and healing as goals to long life or even immortality, and not being hostage to petty fears. Then too the yin-yang principle of polarity — good and evil being part of one and the same system — commends itself against a more dualistic view.

Cons: At its worst or misguided, Taoism implies that people can’t make a difference (which again misunderstands our lack of free will) and encourages too much passivity. Being detached from our feelings can also be a problem when taken to extremes.

6. Shintoism. 3 ½ stars. The laid-back religion is animistic and centered around kami, or sacred spirits that take the form of animals, plants, rivers, lakes, whatever. People become kami when they die and are honored as such, which is nifty. Shintoism is a highly ethnic religion rooted in Japanese culture and bases most of its beliefs on four ancient tomes: (1) the Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters), (2) the Shoku Nihongi and its Nihon Shoki (Continuing Chronicles of Japan), (3) the Rikkokushi (Six National Histories), and (4) the Jinnō Shōtōki (a study of Shinto and Japanese politics and history). There’s no clear-cut right or wrong in Shintoism and so things are pretty grey. Shinto rituals are designed to keep away evil kami, on which see below.

Cons: The worst thing about Shintoism is those evil kami. People who die holding a grudge strong enough to keep them attached to the physical world become vengeful spirits (as portrayed in The Grudge and other Japanese horror films), and it’s nigh impossible to escape them, or bargain with them, if they want to tear you apart. Just watching The Grudge damn near gave me a heart-attack.

7. Jainism. 3 ½ stars. A religion that teaches the supremacy of non-violence (the opposite of Islam) has a lot going for it. Whenever people tell you that all religions are equally malleable and prone to violent permutations, you can refute that claim with many examples, but Jainism is Exhibit A. It is impossible to derive violence out of Jainism, which is why it’s never happened. The swastika symbol may cause a double-take, but until Hitler perverted it, the swastika was a positive symbol. In Jainism it stands for the four states of existence: heavenly beings, human beings, hellish beings, and flora/fauna. The Five Great Vows of Jainism require the renunciation of (1) killing anything living, (2) lying, (3) greed, (4) sexual pleasure and (5) worldly attachments.

Cons: Pacifism is a huge plus, but at their extreme the Jains are pacifist to the point of dysfunction. Some of them watch where they place their feet every moment for fear of stepping on bugs, insisting on devices such as mosquito nets instead of insect repellent, smoke, or liquid traps. The stringent asceticism of Jainism is also a bit much for me. Sexual and worldly pleasures are a good part of life.

8. Hinduism. 3 stars. Hinduism is so diverse in its theoretical premises and actual expressions that I hardly know how to rank it. Yes, all religions are diverse in certain ways, but Hinduism is an extraordinary pastiche of monism, theism, monotheism, polytheism, and pantheism — all of these are built into the Hindu worldview. It doesn’t have a founder, it’s based on an impersonal Supreme Reality (Brahman), and the multiple personal manifestations of that reality as God (as Vishnu, Shiva, or Kali, etc). Basically take your theology of choice, and chances are it will find some legitimate basis in Hinduism. There has been a strong tradition of freedom of belief and practice in the religion, and that’s its greatest plus. (In this entry I would include Sikhism, the fifth largest world religion, which grew out of the Bhakti Hindu movement and has elements of Sufi Islam.)

Cons: The tradition of tolerance is great but isn’t anchored in a coherent system. And there’s the flip side: because the Hindu pantheon is so diverse, it has evil deities who demand nasty shit. Like the goddess Kali. The Thuggee (where we get the word “thug”), for example, were a brotherhood of thieves and assassins who pretended friendship with travelers in India before killing them. They were Muslim in origin, but later became associated with the Hindu death cult of Kali. Forget the cartoon portrayal of the Kali cult in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. For a realistic and thoroughly unpleasant portrayal of Hindu sacrifice read The Song of Kali.

9. Islam. 1 star. Muhammad wasn’t anything like the Buddha or Jesus. He was a warlord, and all the Islamic sources (the Qur’an, Sira, and Hadith) require believers to follow the jihad example. The only ambiguities in the Qur’an are the few passages advocating peace, but they are (a) all too few, (b) subordinate to the many passages which supersede them (the doctrine of abrogation), and (c) are understood to apply only when Muslims are outnumbered and have no chance of winning a war (reflecting the early time of Muhammad’s career). The precept of Islam is clear: perpetual war against all who deny the prophet, the subjugation of infidels (and women) under rule of a caliphate and oppressive sharia law. This has always been the historical norm for Islam and it remains obligatory in all schools of Sunni and Shia thought. There are obviously moderate Muslims, but no form of moderate Islam.

Cons: See above. Islam is saturated with dangerous and toxic ideas. Of all the religions it has done the most damage throughout history, yes, even in Umayyad Spain, which supposedly saw a “golden age” for Islam, but which is a myth.

10. Scientology. 1 star. How anyone takes it seriously is beyond me. It’s science fiction dressed up as religion, but a mentally abusive religion that robs you blind. The #1 goal of the church is to become filthy rich — richer than the goddamn pope. There is no top level in the religion as claimed; when you reach the top of the Bridge (OTP 8) you find out there are more levels after all, which cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Psychology and psychiatry are condemned, because there is no such thing as mental illness. Church leaders stop their followers from getting proper medical help, and in some cases have caused suicides because of it. Scientology teaches that the individual is responsible for everything and has the power to heal him or herself with church “technology”. Seriously.

Cons: See above. Everything about this religion is a con.