Unwanted deification

In Terry Pratchett’s book Monstrous Regiment, there’s a deity known as the Duchess. She was once a real, live Duchess for a tiny country called Borogrovia. But at some point she became deified, in large part because Nuggan, the actual god of Borogrovia, made so many things taboo — or, in the terms of the Nugganites, called them Abominations — that people stopped trusting Nuggan. For example, Nuggan said that rocks were an Abomination, which meant you weren’t supposed to have anything to do with them. It’s really hard to get through life if you have to avoid every rock you see.

As Nuggan began to fail, people in Borogravia began praying to the Duchess. As a result, she became deified. And the Duchess did not like being deified. Finally, she said to one of her disciples:

“Let…me…go! All those prayers, all those entreaties…to me! Too many hands clasped that could more gainfully answer your prayers by effort and resolve! And what was I? Just a rather stupid woman when I was alive. But you believed I watched over you, and listened to you…and so I had to, I had to listen, knowing that there was no help… I wish people would not be so careless about what they believe.” [ellipses in the original]

Well, it’s just a story, just a satire. You don’t have to take this too seriously. But it does seem to me that you want to be careful who or what you pray to. In our culture, we tend to have this notion that our personal prayers, our personal spirituality, is our business and no one else’s. But that simply isn’t true. Everything is connected. There is no such thing as spirituality that is only personal, only restricted to one person. As the Duchess found out (to her dismay), prayers can deify someone or something who really doesn’t want to be deified. Don’t be careless about what you believe; or about what you don’t believe, for that matter.

No conservative nerds

I can’t figure out if this is anti-intellectualism or something stranger. But a website calling itself the “Washington Free Beacon,” which is funded by conservative billionaire Paul Singer, recently ran a hatchet-job piece about Lucas Kunce, a Democrat in Missouri who plans to run for U.S. Senator in 2024. Of course a conservative website is going to oppose any Democratic candidate in this polarized world. But one of the reasons they gave for opposing Kunce was not his political policies, but the fact that he plays Magic: The Gathering:

“…In a free and just society, playing Magic: The Gathering with a journalist would disqualify someone from seeking public office. To paraphrase one of America’s most formidable intellectual prognosticators: ‘We don’t want nerds elected in Missouri….'”

(They link that phrase “formidable intellectual prognosticator” to a low-quality Youtube video of Donald Trump saying, “We don’t want perverts.”)

I’m not going to provide a link to the Washington Free Beacon hatchet-job, because as an ad hominem attack, it doesn’t deserve any incoming links. (I also won’t link to leftist websites that indulge in ad hominem attacks.) But you can read more about the Lucas Kunze story at File 770, a nerd website that I read regularly.

Anyway. I guess the Washington Free Beacon is saying that no one can be a political conservative who plays Magic (35 million people do so) — nor by extension can any other nerds, including people who read science fiction, watch Star Trek, are good at math, think science is cool, etc. This is political polarization run amok.

J.R.R. Tolkien and white supremacy

An interesting essay by Tolkien scholar Robin A. Reid points out that the beloved author’s works are also loved by neo-Nazis, white supremacists, etc. Why? Perhaps because Tolkien’s fictional universe sets up a fictional racial hierarchy similar to the real-world racial hierarchies promoted by neo-Nazis, white supremacists, etc. The essay’s title is, in of itself, interesting: “Why White Supremacy No Longer Provides Cover for White Academia.”

Reid also cites a recently-published article that uncovers the racism in Tolkein’s fictional world: “[I]n 2022, those of us working on racisms and Tolkien were amazed to discover a newly-published essay in The Southern Journal of Philosophy: Charles W. Mills’ “The Wretched of Middle-earth: An Orkish Manifesto.” … It turns out that this 2022 publication is over thirty years old: Mills wrote it at some point during the late 1980s and could not get it published….” Reid goes on to say that the simple fact that Mills could not get his essay published in the 1980s helps reveal how Tolkien scholarship has been dominated by white viewpoints and by white privilege.

Not ready for prime time

A Star Trek musical is in the works. Called “Khan!!! The Musical!: A Parody Trek-tacular,” it will premiere Off-Broadway in early May.

The premise? Data the android, while learning about human culture, finds out about Broadway musicals, and programs his own holographic musical. Which features things like Vulcan tap dancing… and “mutant space-chickens.”

They lost me at mutant space-chickens. It makes it sound like they’re trying too hard to be funny. Singing tribbles might be funny. Mutant space-chickens… meh.

Out of the mouths of Scots

Sometimes another blogger says what you want to say, but better, and more concisely. Earlier today, Scottish blogger and science fiction author Charles Stross wrote about how the Supreme Court of the United States intends to overturn Roe v. Wade, saying in part:

“It is unwise to underestimate the degree to which extreme white supremacism in the USA is enmeshed with a panic about ‘white’ people being ‘out-bred’ by other races. This also meshes in with extreme authoritarian patriarchal values, the weird folk religion that names itself “Christianity” and takes pride in its guns and hatred of others, homophobia, transphobia, an unhealthy obsession with eugenics (and a low-key desire to eliminate the disabled which plays into COVID19 denialism, anti-vaxx, and anti-mask sentiment), misogyny, incel culture, QAnon, classic anti-semitic Blood Libel, and Christian Dominionism (which latter holds that the USA is a Christian nation—and by Christian they mean that aforementioned weird folk religion derived from protestantism I mentioned earlier—and their religious beliefs must be enshrined in law).”

That just about covers it, doesn’t it.

Next, let us discuss how Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale is about to jump genres, from science fiction into historical fiction….

The problem with free will

“Free will exists to an extent for the individual, but disappears in the group.” — Spider Robinson, Off the Wall at Callahan’s (Tor Books, 1994), courtesy of.

Given that Unitarian Universalists tend to be obsessed with free will: assuming this statement is true, it would explain a lot about the dissatisfaction many Unitarian Universalists have with Unitarian Universalism.

(For the record, my sense is that free will is a cultural artifact of Western Christianity, not a valid way of thinking about how human beings interact with the world.)


From 1995 to 1998, I published a science fiction fanzine. This was before people published their fanzines on the Web, so it was photocopied, stapled, and mailed out. What eventually killed it off was the cost of printing and mailing two or three dozen copies; I didn’t have much money in those days.

It’s hard to explain the whole subculture which surrounded science fiction fanzines in the days before the Web. It’s important to know that there were several different types of fanzines: genzines, with multiple authors writing on topics of general interest to all science fiction fans; personalzines, written by a single person who wrote about whatever interested them; newszines, with news of science fiction fandom. Most fanzines were personalzines; genzines and newszines required a higher level of skill. Fanzines were distributed in several different ways: apazines were distributed through an APA, or Amateur Press Association, where fanzines of APA members were collated and distributed to all the members; a clubzine was distributed to the members of a science fiction club; but most fanzines were made available for the “The Usual,” which meant there were three ways to get a copy: send a letter of comment (LoC), send some modest sum plus a self-addressed stamped envelope; or send your own fanzine in trade. I started a fanzine primarily because I needed something to trade for other fanzines. Other science fiction fans, called “letterhacks,” fed their fanzine habit by writing innumerable letters of comment. And many fanzines carried reviews of fanzines they had received, along with the editor’s address. Fanzine subculture was really a social network organized around the written word; in a very real sense it can be seen as a precursor to today’s online social networks, because a significant proportion of the users of the earliest social networks — BBSs, Usenet, etc. — were science fiction fans, and those early users shaped later social networks. It is not a coincidence that one of the very first web logs, or blogs, was written and hand-coded by Poul Anderson, a science fiction author.

The other part of science fiction fandom’s social network was, and still is, conventions. A science fiction convention was where you met face-to-face the people that you had come to know through reading fanzines and writing letters of comment. Or maybe you didn’t meet those other people: many science fiction fans were (and are) strongly introverted, and a feature of some of the science fiction conventions I attended were sessions in which a whole bunch of people sat in a room together and read books; no one talked. To those of you who are extroverted, this will sound crazy, but for those of us who are strong introverts, this sounds like the perfect way to be social, and even though I never attended one of those sessions it was comforting to know they were an option. Science fiction conventions also attracted a fair percentage of people whom we would now call neuroatypical; it was normal to be neuroatypical at a science fiction fan, just as it was normal to be socially awkward, or to be socially adept, or to be neurotypical. Science fiction fans, in my experience, could be a very tolerant group of people; though at the same time, science fiction fandom has always been subject to intense feuds and violent arguments (to read about a recent science fiction kerfluffle, do a Web search for “rabid puppies hugo”). These conflicts, of course, made wonderful material for several months’ worth of fanzines and letters of comment, and a regular feature of most fanzines was “convention reports,” where someone would tell in excruciating detail all about their experience at some science fiction convention; and the next issue there would be letters commenting on the convention report, and later more letters commenting on the comments, and so it could go on for months. And of course the WordCon — the annual world science fiction convention — was the biggest convention of all, the one which generated more fanzine column inches than any other.

This year’s WorldCon is in San Jose, and it going on right now. I thought about going. I’ve only been to one WorldCon, in 1980, and it would be fun to go one more time. Then I thought of the crowds of science fiction fans mobbing the San Jose Convention Center. I don’t like crowds, even crowds of tolerant people who do things like sit in a room together reading books and not talking. And I remembered years ago, when I was still publishing my science fiction fanzine, I wrote a con report which said, in essence, “I didn’t go.” So this is my con report telling you why I didn’t go to the WorldCon that took place a short drive from where I live.

Harlan Ellison

It’s hard to believe that Harlan Ellison is dead.

If you know anything about science fiction, you know that Harlan Ellison was brilliant. At his best, he was a superb writer; not a writer in the genteel mode of The New Yorker, but a writer of smart, fast-paced pop culture genre fiction with strong plots and strong characters. His 1965 story “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” sticks in my memory: the Harlequin, a rebel against a society which enforces strict conformism, is finally brought under control by the uber-enforcer called the Ticktockman; yet at the end of the story, it appears that the Ticktockman may have been nudged into small acts of non-conformism through his interaction with the Harlequin.

In addition to writing science fiction stories, Ellison worked in Hollywood, writing for Star Trek, The Twilight Zone, and many other TV shows. He was also, by all accounts, a difficult individual. Take, for example, the best-known manifestation of his difficult character: an anthology he edited called The Last Dangerous Visions. He bought stories from many well-known science fiction authors, the book was supposed to have been published in 1973, but it remained unpublished at his death. This was not merely an extreme case of work avoidance: he retained all rights to all the stories he had received, refused to let anyone else publish the stories, and aggressively pursued legal action when he thought someone he trespassed on his rights as editor.

Yet in spite of his character flaws (and who am I to point out character flaws? heaven knows we all have character flaws), he inspired devotion in many people. In his autobiography I Asimov, Isaac Asimov called him “warm and loving.” According to Asimov, Ellison had a “miserable youth”: “Being always small and being always enormously intelligent, he found that he could easily flay the dimwits by whom he was surrounded. But he could only do so in words, and the dimwits could use their fists…. This embittered him and did not teach him to keep his mouth shut….” Will Shetterly, another science fiction writer, notes some of the things that Ellison did not keep his mouth shut about: Ellison participated in the civil rights march in Selma; he also went to great lengths to show his support of the Equal Rights Amendment.

It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say that Ellison was a kind of living version of his character, the Harlequin: completely unwilling, maybe even unable to conform to societal norms. But unlike the Harlequin, Ellison never gave in, he was never brought under the control of the Ticktockman.

Brief obituary at Locus; full obit in their August issue.
A 1954 description of Ellison as a science fiction fan.