Just for Fun: Into Plutonian Depths

Planet Stories Vol. 4, No. 6 (Spring 1950).  Cover by Allen Anderson

Planet Stories Vol. 4, No. 6 (Spring 1950). Cover by Allen Anderson

A peculiarity of popular culture, which is also commercial culture, is that it dislikes competing with its own earlier iterations. Commercial culture therefore tends to be dismissive or even hostile in respect of its past, emphasizing its ever-renewed, up-to-date, and often cloyingly topical relevance, as its chief sales point. This state of affairs means that the consumers of popular culture, while they are aficionados of genre, often know little about the history of genre, what we might call the archive. Science fiction – which established its market in mass-circulation “pulp” magazines in the 1930s, and then prolonged its appeal in the form of the mass-circulation paperback in the 1950s – offers a case in point. One has only to compare Amazing Stories, Astounding, and Planet Stories, whose heyday was the 1930s and 40s, with the magazines that succeeded them during the Eisenhower presidency and into the 1960s: Galaxy, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and the revamped Astounding that now called itself, perhaps a bit pretentiously, Analogue. The pulps were bulky in format, with three-color covers depicting space-dreadnaughts in combat, bug-eyed monsters assaulting human beings, and buxom women breasting the cosmos in metallic vacuum-proof bikinis. The “slicks” responded to a changing market, or to a changing and sometimes rather snooty notion of propriety, by shrinking themselves down to digest size and offering visually a more austere internal appearance. The magazine covers became solemn, satirical, or abstract, but as a rule they avoided sensationalism, and occasionally they bade fair, as in Ed Emshwiller’s many fine covers for Galaxy, to be artistic.

The pulps filled their pages with scientifically insouciant forays into interplanetary space, Suetonius-like pseudo-histories of galactic empires, and extraterrestrial hero-sagas that might well be described under the formula of Beowulf on Mars. The slicks, by contrast, bound their contributors to the rule of plausibility and preferred them to submit material that eschewed the motifs of grand invention and hero-quest in order to focus on sociological trends and dystopian speculation. When the mass-market science-fiction paperback appeared in the early 1950s, it mainly republished material that had originally appeared in the older periodical venues, but by the mid-1960s the character of the content had altered. Whereas the Ace paperback list corresponded largely to the pulps, the Ballantine, Avon, and Signet lists corresponded largely to the slicks. The slick disposition considered itself as representative of positive progress beyond the pulps in the direction of intellectual sophistication, political sagacity, and aesthetic refinement. Historians of the genre mainly endorse that self-evaluation. But is it so?

Even when they suffered from hasty writing, the pulp stories displayed a myth-like vitality and a powerful moral, if not exactly ethical, impulse that to some degree went missing from the genre about the time that the hyperbolically Romantic Planet Stories ceased publication in 1952, and when Galaxy and Analogue rose to the forefront of the genre. This longstanding suspicion – that the naïve phase of science fiction, superseded by the sophisticated phase right down to the present, often excelled its successor-phase in richness of imagery and narrative muscularity – has recently found happy confirmation in the entrepreneurial intuition of Gregory Luce, a well-known broadcaster on San Francisco area radio and television. Luce’s Oregon-based, web-mediated publishing enterprise, Armchair Fiction, in cooperation with online megastore Amazon’s publish-on-demand service, has undertaken since 2011 to return to print lost items of genre fiction, mainly science fiction, from the mid-Twentieth Century that have been out of print and hard to find for decades. The result is an enormous boon for fans and students of Pulp-Era stories of planetary adventure. That there is a market for such things is also, in its modest way, a sign that cultural amnesia, while prevalent, is not total.

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Sacrifice Manufactures Society

The hunter has paid for his kill, by his excellence, his effort, his diligence in training and attention, his dedication and focus. Nevertheless it is the god who has given the kill to the hunter, by putting the prey in his way. In the excellence of the hunter and of his works is the way; the prey he finds in that way is from the god, and gratuitous, nowise earned. The hunter does not make the prey, after all, and cannot. All he can do is fit himself to the gift of it. He therefore stands in ontological debt to his divine benefactor (sometimes personified in and as the prey itself, often understood as an avatar or totem of the god). So the duteous, righteous hunter, who would that his own ways continued prosperous, is not proud, but rather gives back his kill to the god who sent it his way in the first place. Along with the effort he has expended in the hunt, and the excellence of his hunting (learned – earned – by arduous training to the mastery of his art), the sacrifice is partial payment for the hunter’s ontological debt.

It goes deeper. Like all his fellows, the hunter knows well and in his bones that he stands in irreparable debt to the god not just for the kill but for his own very being – and with it his capacity to pursue his way – which he cannot himself procure. As the hunter cannot create his prey, nor can he create himself. Everything, then, is owed to the god. So at the root and uttermost limit of sacrifice, the righteous man dedicates the whole of his own life and work to the god, and stands ready to make of himself the sacrifice, to the god and for his people, his flock.

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The Insatiable Maw that Devours Men & Nations

Some habits can be relatively benign, even when addictive: caffeine, the athlete’s highs, haute cuisine, tidiness. A benign addiction to coffee can tend to its own daily limit, where the marginal cup of coffee decreases the sought after acuity of thought that motivated the habit in the first place. And you can only run so many miles every day without crippling your ability to run.

Some habits – as prayer, music, discipline, training, courage, thoughtfulness, care, attention, gratitude – are virtuous, and incline us more and more to virtue in every department of life. Virtue is in itself, and in all its varieties, an addictive pleasure, that tends to the general increase of virtue and to the correction, harmony and vim of the whole organism. The virtuous addiction to prayer, for example, tends to permeate life, integrating, settling, and healing it.

Benign addictions then are self-limiting, while virtuous addictions salve and ennoble the whole person, more and more. Both sorts tend toward balance, toward what the Greeks called krasis – the just mixture of ingredients in a mixing bowl or Receptacle (a krater).   

But many addictions catch the addict in a vicious positive feedback loop wherein ever stronger doses of the addictive pleasure are needed in order to reproduce its characteristic hedonic effect. Eventually the doses, and the need for them, grow so large as to be all-consuming, toxic, and so eventually lethal, somehow or other: to the body, the balance sheet, the career, the family.

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Value is Conserved

I have long been intrigued by the conservation laws. Conservation of energy, momentum, charge, and so forth all seem to point to a more basic conservation, of which they are all instances. I was therefore interested to read in Bill Dembski’s latest book, Being as Communion: A Metaphysics of Information, his discussion of Conservation of Information in search routines. He has apparently demonstrated (I have not read the demonstrations, which appear in the technical literature he cites in the book) that increasing the likelihood of a successful search – i.e., a search that has an object and finds it – over and above the walk of a blind drunkard who is not looking for anything in particular may be accomplished only through additional investment of information in the search routine. This can be done in a number of ways: by a more comprehensive specification of the configuration of the object, or by adding a feedback circuit to the algorithm, or by adding strange attractors to the configuration space (so that the environment of the search itself embodies more information) or some other similar measure. But any such improvements of search efficiency – of the likelihood of success – come at a cost of their own: it takes information to inform the search. At best, then, informed search will cost just as much as blind search, and cannot cost less. But then also if the information added to the routine is not essentially perfect – free of noise and error – then the addition will cost more information than it saves: the overall cost of the search, plus the cost of the search for the improvements to that search, will exceed the cost of random wandering about the configuration space.

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Philosophy versus Tradition

Many reactionaries complain that capitalism is eo ipso inimical to tradition. I disagree about that: it is liberal or deranged capitalism that is the problem; so that the problem is not with capitalism per se – which is really nothing other than the natural and basic form of human economic coordination, rooted at bottom in the exchange of gifts and favors, in the love we bear for each other as friends, neighbours and relatives, and so is the default to which all societies recur (and must recur, or else falter and dwindle) – but with its derangement. Latter day capitalism is sick, to be sure. But so is our whole society, beset in all her members and organs by the maladies and diseases by which we infect and corrupt her, a wounded animal struggling ever to heal herself, again and again deformed and crippled by our manifold political foolishness and iterated moral and intellectual insanities.

It’s not economics that is intrinsically inimical to tradition, but philosophy. In a traditional society, there would be no such thing. In a traditional society, no one would wonder how to be a good man, or what the meaning and purpose of life might be, or how and by what agencies the world is ordered. In a healthy traditional society, such questions would not even occur to anyone, because from earliest childhood everyone would have understood the ancient answers handed down by their forefathers from the very beginnings of time. No other answers would be even conceivable. Contrary doctrines would be greeted with outrage, horror and disgust.

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An Eye for an Eye Makes the Whole World Cooperative

An eye for an eye makes the whole world circumspect. But, also, an eye for an eye makes the whole world cooperative, as Robert Axelrod showed with his study of tit for tat and competing strategies using iterated rounds of contests among genetic algorithms (described in his book The Evolution of Cooperation). Tit for tat beat all the alternative strategies, again and again; and as rounds of the contest were iterated, with winning strategies favored by the reproductive mechanism of the iteration, it more and more perfused the population of competing algorithms. As tit for tat increased in frequency, so did the total value generated by all competitors in each round: fewer and fewer defections occurred, and responses to defections were more and more often optimal.

That tit for tat wins the evolutionary game does not mean that its superiority is merely adventitious, an artifact of this or that sequence of random events that might have been quite different, and so generated quite a different sort of winner. On the contrary: provided the game goes on long enough, tit for tat wins every time, sooner or later, and no matter how the sequence of outcomes varies. The utile superiority of tit for tat is a truth of game theory, so that like any other mathematical truth it is from before any and all worlds, and holds true in every world. The metaphysical superiority of tit for tat, then, is the source and reason of its practical evolutionary success, and not vice versa (this is true of all perdurant evolutionary success). Tit for tat is the optimal strategy in evolutionary practice because it is the best in metaphysical fact. As metaphysically best it is the most moral policy of all (these are two ways to say the same thing).

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Socialization of Costs is Moral Hazard

It seems that whenever I start thinking about or discussing economics, I soon start going on about moral hazard. I think it tremendously important, and too little talked about or understood.

A recent short post on the facilitation of nihilism’s incipient historical suicide by prosperity and high technology was no exception. It provoked a long exchange of comments on quite a different (albeit related) topic: latter day capitalism versus distributism. As usual, I mentioned moral hazard:

If the moral hazard created by perverse policies – not of this or that administration, but often deep in the guts of the law – were purged, my guess is that … the size of the average enterprise would drop precipitously. Why? If for no other reason, there would be far less incentive to get big so as to be able to take big risks. Eliminating moral hazard means allowing people to suffer in their own bodies the risks of their actions. When the cost of a bad decision about risk on the part of your enterprise redounds immediately to your own personal situation, you are a lot more careful, a lot more circumspect. You dare less, and you want to have really good information about and control over the projects you take on, so as to control your risk. So you are less ambitious. And that means you grow much more slowly, and that your growth (all other things held equal) is healthier.

Which would result in a less volatile economy, greater average wealth, greater overall wealth, greater average prudence, and any number of other pleasant and salutary things, in the process leading society toward a distributist economic order.

In his response, regular commenter Ita Scripta Est said in passing:

And yet capitalism never quite seems to operate this way. The costs are socialized while the profits somehow always remain private.

He is exactly correct, and precisely nails the problem with latter day capitalism – and every other sublunary social order, whatsoever.

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Perfect Equality is Social Death

Equality in the enjoyment of life can be achieved only by taxing society – which is to say, increasing net suffering – by an amount that exceeds the amount of suffering it ameliorates. The economic friction imposed by transaction costs alone ensures this result. To it must be added the friction of search costs – the costs associated with finding the resources you want to tax, and the people whose suffering you want to relieve.[1]

This static cost accounting is relatively straightforward. But there are hidden, dynamic costs, that go much deeper, and are much greater.

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No Flood Needed This Time Around

Birth rates are plummeting globally, so that even in countries where fertility is above replacement, it soon won’t be. In 150 years or so, the only people around will be religious conservatives, because other sorts of people with looser morals aren’t reproducing (thanks to the Pill, and all its knock-on social and economic effects, noticed in this video).

We have to step back and realize that what is happening to man right now is a pervasive and radical winnowing, comparable almost to the Flood. It’s natural selection at work, weeding out liberalism from the gene pool, and via co-evolution from the meme pool.  Put another way, liberalism is a lethal intellectual mutation. Whether it takes 50 years, or 1,000, liberalism is doomed, because it is at war with reality. Not only is it not nice to fool Mother Nature, it can never, ever be done in the first place. The Logos of the world is not mocked, no matter how amusing our petty pranks at his expense seem to us.

Fortunately for those who are deleting their own ilk from the world’s future, this winnowing may not involve catastrophic war, plague, or economic collapse. The autophagy of liberalism need not destroy civilization in the process. Civilization, even the West, might just squeak through and prevail in the end, preserving some of the best bits of what it has so far achieved. We might get through this winnowing with very little pain and suffering: no mass death, just a series of successively smaller, successively more traditional generations, as liberals die off after long, entertaining, meaningless lives.

Re-Post: The Vinland Voyages in Context

[Note: This article originally appeared at The Brussels Journal under the title “The Vinland Voyages, the Market, and Morality.”]

Scholarship places the composition of the two Vinland Sagas in the Twelfth Century, in the case of The Greenlanders’ Saga, and in the Fourteenth Century in the case of Eirik’s Saga. But like most of the saga-literature the two narratives reflect a non-mythic oral tradition, linked with the settlement and early chronology of Iceland and Greenland, the general (if not the minutely detailed) trustworthiness of which much research both literary and archeological over the last century has attested. Quite apart from scholarly and technical arguments, even the ordinary reader must take the wealth of circumstantial detail and the laconic matter-of-factness of the storytelling as signs of an essential veracity. The two Vinland Sagas reflect the Nordic people at a particular epoch: The transformational moment, namely, at the end of the Tenth Century, when the old warrior-ethos began yielding to the new Gospel ethos and when success in the market began replacing notches on a sword haft as the paramount sign of masculine status. Both The Greenlanders’ Saga and Eirik’s Saga represent this change in the generational differences that distinguish Eirik the Red on the one hand from his male children, especially his son Leif, on the other.

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