A Science Fiction Meditation and Postscript on Halloween
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it...this is the condition of children and barbarians, in whom instinct has learned nothing from experience."
This essay was presented at the Human Futures Salon sponsored by the World Futures Studies Federation on Halloween, October 31, 2020. I have added a postscript to the essay, written now roughly two weeks later, offering some reflections and further thoughts on the content of the essay.
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In April of this year in my newsletter Future Consciousness Insights I published an essay “Living the Coronapocalyse as a Character in a Science Fiction Novel,” and further updating the essay republished it in the August issue of Human Futures, now titling it “Growing in Wisdom during the Coronapocalyse as a Character in a Science Fiction Novel.” My basic argument in the essay is that the “emerging coronavirus pandemic” seems like we are living through a science fiction disaster novel. It made very good sense, for a lot of reasons, to understand our present reality and to guide our actions as if we are characters in a science fiction disaster novel.
Science fiction, indeed, offers many different futurist scenarios and thought experiments on disasters, including world wide plagues, delving into the science, politics, psychology (including mass insanity), sociology, and technological responses connected with such catastrophes. Through science fiction we can raise our consciousness on the varied possibilities of global cataclysms and different types of human reactions to disasters. Listing a number of noteworthy science fiction stories, I stated that such unsettling narratives can shock out of our everyday complacency and dogmatic slumber. Moreover, I proposed that frequently the heroes and survivors in such stories guide their actions with wisdom and often, indeed, grow in wisdom as a consequence of the ordeals they experience. Modeling ourselves on such characters, who face the uncertainty, strangeness, turmoil, and the shifting currents of time, we can aspire to live wisdom narratives through the cataclysm and furor of today. Instead of denying the facts or resisting the innumerable changes occurring around us, we can face the upheaval of things, and learn, adapt, transform, and grow.
Now on Halloween, with the pandemic still spreading and growing at record rates, I want to push my argument even further, for not all disasters envisioned in science fiction are acts of nature (or alien invasions), and in fact the most insidious and destructive catastrophes that could impact humanity derive from within us. Although many of us are behaving wisely, with good sense and often courage in dealing with the pandemic, there is a counter-wave of madness and stupidity within the human spirit that is amplifying the dangers and problems we are facing, and this pervasive psycho-social imbecility is the more menacing and treacherous epidemic threatening the quality of our lives. And science fiction has something to say about this form of disaster as well.
As a way to explain this deeper point about destructive epidemics within the human mind, I will begin by reflecting on the holiday we are celebrating today: Halloween. Halloween is our holiday for reveling in, with good humor and fun and “trick or treating,” the world of spooky Jack o’ Lanterns and devils and demons and witches, and ghosts and ghouls and zombies and vampires and the walking dead, and all manner of monsters, hideous aliens, and freakish apparitions in the night. In good jest we play with the frightful, macabre, and the horrific. The lunacy and the many faces of the Jungian psychic “shadow” come out to haunt cemeteries and howl in the streets. All of this, to a point, is well and good, as an imaginary adventure in the make-believe. Indeed, it is worth pointing out that zombie and horror movies are more popular, creepy, and visually grotesque than ever, entertaining our minds, shocking our emotions, and assaulting our senses throughout the entire year. The spirit of Halloween seems to be with us always.
Yet, clearly we would change our tune if real zombies, headless horsemen, and animated, blood-dripping skeletons assaulted us, attempting to possess and devour our souls. We may romanticize madness and evil in fiction and fantasy, but actually to confront it is gut-retching and deeply frightening. It unnerves and dis-equilibrates our minds. I learned long ago that although it might be entertaining and engaging to read a story or watch a movie in which monsters and forces of evil threaten our lives, if such diabolical entities become real, in any fashion or form, the fun is over and life transforms into an exceedingly unpleasant and disturbing reality.
It is not simply the ugliness and frightening appearance of such creatures--if they were real--that would deeply terrify us. Such monsters are fundamentally horrifying because their inner being is evil, mad, perverse, or without conscience. It is their venomous psyches, their heartlessness, their mindlessness, and their crazed and murderous mental states that form the essence of their evil. One could argue that their envisioned repulsive and terrifying external appearances are an expression, manifestation, or symbolization of their inner ugliness and evil.
I raise this point on the frightening inner nature of evil because monsters, demons, and zombies can be real, if one defines such individuals in terms of their inner state of being, rather than their external appearance. It can be argued that all the aliens, devils, and monsters we create in fantasy and our imagination are psychological projections of what is within our own conscious minds; the monsters on the screen are symbolic expressions of the monsters within us--“creatures of the id” from deep within us that can come out and wreak havoc on the world. (See the classic science fiction movie Forbidden Planetfor a great outer space narrative on this theme.)
If we live insulated lives, our minds preoccupied with normal, everyday, short-term concerns, we can be complacent and oblivious to the real fact that within human history demons and devils, in the deep inner sense, have walked the earth. Lunatics and madmen--monsters in human clothing--have ravaged, enslaved, tortured, and murdered human souls by the millions throughout our past. The minds and behavior of humans have been intimated and frightened into submission and obedience by violent and vengeful crackpots and psychopaths. It has become unpopular and “politically incorrect” to describe any people as evil or crazy, but throughout human history there have been frequent whirlpools of lunacy and evil swirling about in human society. We can say (or believe) that it can’t happen here, in our civilized modern world now, but history proves us wrong on this. Eighty years ago--a drop in the bucket of time--the world was drawn into a violent maelstrom of destruction and mass genocide instigated by a number of egomaniacal human monsters, and a mere 160 years ago millions of people in the United States went to war to defend their “right” to enslave fellow human beings.
We can turn to science fiction, as well, to get an expanded sense of the possibilities of inhumanity, terror, and monsters of immorality that could afflict society. Moreover, science fiction provides narratives in which such social and ethical dangers are faced and dealt with--at least some of the time for there are no guarantees--and we move forward into a better world. In the October 5th issue of Future Consciousness Insights I published an essay, “The Darkness Looming on the Horizon,” in which I discuss science fiction dystopias. I raised the question of what value there could be in looking at our current social-political state of affairs as if we were living within a science fiction dystopian novel. It seemed to me that there were numerous science fiction dystopian narratives that had relevance to our current unsettled state of affairs.
And just like in my “Coronapocalyse” essay, I argued that the way to successfully address the challenges--in this case a potentially dystopian reality within our current society--was through wisdom. Indeed wisdom is especially relevant here since a dystopia is basically a society in which the values and practices of wisdom have been jettisoned or overturned. Knowledge and truth and ethics and sanity and justice--all key dimensions of wisdom--are abandoned in dystopias; these deficiencies are what makes such societies dystopias. Somewhere in dystopias, at their core, we find the demons and monsters of immorality, irresponsibility, injustice, dishonesty, cruelty, heartlessness, lunacy, and all the various vices of the human psyche. (Parenthetically, it is not technology per se that will make for either future dystopias or utopias--or even resolve the pandemic--but rather the levels of depravity and stupidity versus virtuousness and wisdom in the human mind.) Through virtue and wisdom we confront dystopias or the threat of dystopia, and we create utopias. Through virtue and wisdom we confront evil, madness, and disease.
Isaac Asimov’s Foundation saga is the most highly regarded science fiction novel series of all time. Set in the far future, an individual named Hari Seldon develops the mathematical discipline of “psychohistory” through which he is able to predict the long-term future of human society, and consequently help to guide humanity in an informed and thoughtful manner. But his system of prediction is based on lawful patterns of aggregate behavior of large human populations. As the future unfolds, an aberration, a quirk appears--a single severely psychologically damaged individual named the “Mule”--who possesses great mental powers to influence human mass behavior toward his psychopathic and vengeful ends, and it is only through luck and the actions of a few people that galactic catastrophe is averted.
It may be that human civilization has been making progress along social and ethical lines for thousands of years, and it may even be the case that the general trend of evolution across the universe is toward increasing intelligence, but progress and evolution have their ups and downs, their elements of chance and chaos, and there is nothing certain under the sun. We can fail, or at the very least fall backwards to a new “Dark Ages,” filled with goblins, ghouls, and demons of the mind. Perhaps a “Mule” will appear --perhaps one already has, since in our history it has happen before--and all our progress and evolution as a general overall trend gets upset in a blinding flash of mass insanity. Utopia versus dystopia is a choice, rather than an absolute inevitability in either direction, and moving toward a utopia requires effort and vigilance. Although it is fun to dance and frolic with the devil, and ghosts and monsters of the id on Halloween, we should keep in mine the old adage (a wisdom saying) that if you dance with the devil the devil always wins.
Living in an evolutionary universe entails acknowledging and living with a level of uncertainty. A key dimension of wisdom is realizing the uncertainty of one’s beliefs and the uncertainty of life. Human knowledge is a relatively contingent affair and no one possesses absolutely guaranteed truth about the nature of things. (No one is ever completely out of the dark.) Most futurists would argue that the future is inherently uncertain; no one can “see into the future,” for there is nothing to see. The future is possibilities. And hence realistic hope and optimism about the future require courage for the journey of life is filled with surprises and twists and turns.
All this is not to say that we do not possess numerous and diverse methods for determining and evaluating our beliefs about the world and making informed predictions about the future. As I discussed in previous essays on “knowledge” and “science” we can conscientiously and thoughtfully compare beliefs, draw considered conclusions about the relative merit of different ideas, and build our knowledge about the world. We can rationally and empirically distinguish between sound, well-supported ideas and mere hearsay, falsehoods, and dribble-drabble. We need to acknowledge the contingency of our judgements, but not to the point of thinking that one idea is as good as the next. Over the centuries there has been immense progress in science and the growth of knowledge through the principled methods of rational and empirical inquiry.
Although we have passed through the night of Halloween, the demons, monsters, and zombies have not all gone back into their graves and the underworld. The pandemic continues to spread and grow across the world, and in particular, within the United States the numbers of new cases keeps rising, faster and faster, breaking records over and over again -- in large part due to the fact that too many people remain oblivious or obstinately antagonistic to medical-scientific evidence and ethically conscientious social behavior. Metaphorically, the infection of ignorance (even willful ignorance) continues to spread through people’s minds. Moreover, in conjunction with our national election numerous groups of people, as well as political figures and newscasters, continue to proclaim falsehoods for which there is no evidence. Notably these people appear to be the same people who have denied the danger and severity of the pandemic and opposed science and good sense in dealing with the pandemic. Why do so many people believe in things for which there is no evidence, and yet refuse to believe in things for which there is plenty of evidence? The pathways to disasters and dystopias are paved with ignorance and lies.
As I have stated, the dangers of dystopian thinking and behavior are much more threatening to our well-being than the corona virus per se. (Dystopias are societies that undermine the virtues of wisdom.) When we reject scientifically considered truth for hearsay and falsehoods our society is threatened. When we reject conscientious and careful elections, instead favoring groundless paranoid conspiracy theories, we are headed for trouble. (Conspiracy theories are victimization mindsets.) There are zombies walking the streets and demons spouting nonsense in the media. It is indeed frightening when such ghouls and maniacs are out and about spreading the viruses of mind and body through word and deed. As has been argued, the opposite of wisdom is foolishness, and the United States still seems infected with foolishness. (For what’s it’s worth, foolishness is celebrated on Halloween.) But one could also argue that evil is the opposite of wisdom, for evil distorts and misrepresents reality and doesn’t seek the common good, rather simply pursuing power and self-aggrandizement.
Going back to my main points at the conclusion of the original essay, the pursuit of wisdom is the best counter-action to disasters and threatening dystopias. We should live wisdom narratives that acknowledge the uncertainty of the future and the “evil (and foolishness) that lurks in the hearts of men,” thus requiring of us courage, vigilance, and diligence in creating a better world. Wisdom is not pollyannish, but it is the guiding light at the end of the tunnel. What do we need to do to build a wise society -- a wise United States and a wise world-- in the face of the diseases that continue to infect our minds and our bodies? We need to keep lighting candles--of wisdom, science, and the conscientious and self-responsible pursuit of knowledge--rather than cursing the darkness. It is our ethical responsibility. Indeed, it is only by lighting such candles that we both illuminate and then sweep away the darkness.
Evolution of Science Fiction:
New Videos and Webinar
Dear Friends and Colleagues,
You are invited to join me at the next Evolution of Science Fiction webinar:
The Evolution of Science Fiction: Module Five
Enlightenment, Romanticism, and the Gothic (1750-1820)
Saturday, November 21 2020, 12:00 PM - 1:30 PM [EST]
Hope and fear, our two fundamental anticipatory emotions regarding the future, come to center stage in human consciousness and the evolution of science fiction during the Western Enlightenment and the subsequent Age of Romanticism and the Gothic. In fact, reason and science versus passion and sensation also clash and swirl around each other during this epochal period in the history of science fiction. The Western theory of future progress is both embraced and defended and attacked and ridiculed. Utopias and dystopias are written, and narrative visions of benevolent spirits and hideous monsters are created. In our imagination we begin to journey into the solar system, as well as deep into the unknown interior of the earth, and we dive into depression, obsession, and despair in the classic works of Frankenstein and The Last Man. We travel both into outer space and the inner space of the human mind. We are visited by aliens in Voltaire’s Micromegas and we visit them in Davy’s The Last Days of a Philosopher. The past and the future fight it out, and Prometheus is both “unbound” and shackled again. Amidst the awe and the terror experienced over the future and the unknown, comedy and satire also become important elements in the ongoing evolution of science fiction. All in all, during this time we both see the light and run into the darkness.
You can register at: https://events.eventzilla.net/e/the-evolution-of-science-fiction-module-fivep-enlightenment-romanticism-and-the-gothic-17501820-2138788883
Once registered we will send you an access url to the Zoom meeting.
"It is unmistakably the best webinar presentation, consecutively viewed or singly viewed, that I have ever spent as a participant or a viewer. Ever!" Cedar Sarilo Leverett, MFA, Society of Consciousness Studies
Two New YouTube Videos on the Evolution of Science Fiction Webinar Series:
Wendell Bell (September 27, 1924 – November 3, 2019) was my dear friend for over 20 years. He was a world renown futurist, who was highly articulate, knowledgeable, and intelligent, as well as warm, friendly, and positive in spirit. My wife, Jeanne, described him as "a gentlemen and a scholar." In my mind he was an paragon of wisdom.
In commemoration of the one year anniversary of his passing away Peter Hayward (a futurist educator living in Australia and creator of Future Pod) organized a podcast dialogue on the legacy of Wendell Bell involving myself and Richard Slaughter (former President of the World Futures Studies Federation and author of numerous classic works in futures studies).
You can listen to our podcast dialogue at: The Futures Community Remembers Wendell Bell. Also included on the podcast webpage a number of online links that examine in depth the philosophy, life, and futurist theories of Wendell Bell. In his futurist writings and practices, Wendell synthesized science, ethics, historical scholarship, and action, providing a comprehensive approach to futures studies. For anyone interested in how to integrate in their own thinking and approach to life futurist concepts with philosophy, science, ethics, and the pursuit of wisdom, Wendell Bell's writings are an excellent resource and stimulus for expanding and empowering one's consciousness.
Below are a couple of photos of Wendell, his wife Lora-Lee, myself, and my wife Jeanne.
A Veterans Day Reflection on Fighting for Our Country
Jeanne Belisle Lombardo
Daniel E. Belisle
November 21, 1917 - December 14, 1995
The Veteran’s Day flag-waving is over for another year. Many have duly posted photos of their father’s and grandfather’s military pictures on Facebook and urged us all to honor those brave men and women who “fought for our country.” I did too, posting one early studio portrait of a scrubbed young man in 1941, looking into his future from his farmland corner of the world in Willow City, North Dakota, population 524. That man was Daniel E. Belisle, age 24.
Yes, I am proud of my father’s service. Coming of age in the 1970s I thrilled to dozens of war movies depicting the sacrifice and honor of those brave (mostly, in the movies) men who served. A voracious young reader, sometime in my teens I gobbled up William L. Shirer’s seminal 1960 history of Nazi Germany, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, and sobbed at the documentaries and books chronicling the horrors of the war and the utter evil of the concentration camps.
But on Veterans Day this year, I also feel a profound irony … and sorrow … in the way those words, “fought for our country,” are flung about today so automatically and thoughtlessly and self-righteously by those of my fellow citizens who seem to have very little understanding of the history of the United States at the time we entered that war; who can sing empty praise for FDR as one of our greatest presidents without knowing anything about his part in providing support for Europe in its darkest hour (not to mention anything about his “socialist” New Deal); and who now embrace a wannabe dictator of their own in the person of Donald Trump. How is it that these Americans can celebrate the efforts of their ancestors to remove a tyrant and yet passionately embrace a new one who follows the same playbook?
The question that arises in my mind this Veterans Day is this: What does it mean to those 70 million flag-waving Republican patriots out there that our fathers and grandfathers “fought for our country” in World War II? Doesn’t “fighting for our country” mean, at its heart, fighting to preserve democracy? If this phrase is more than a simple knee-jerk slogan pulled out on national holidays, why, then, do they not recognize the bludgeoning fascism that Donald Trump represents? How is it that these fellow citizens voted to keep in office a man who now employs the tools of dictators, only the latest of which are to suppress opposition, deny defeat, claim fraud, and employ government to reverse election results?
In 1941 we were far from the chaos unfolding in Europe. It took the bombing of Pearl Harbor for Americans, 90% of whom had opposed the war in 1939, to approve the deployment of our troops against Hitler’s Germany. But when war was declared, as a nation we were full in. We were united in our revulsion of and our struggle against the absolutism, tyranny, politically motivated violence, and barbarity that Hitler unleashed. Indeed, it was perhaps the “finest hour” and moral highpoint in our history. Now, nearly 80 years after we pledged the strength and blood of 16 million American soldiers to cleanse Europe and the world of fascism, don’t we owe it to the memories of those soldiers to honor what they fought for when we say they “fought for our country”?