The following is a rough transcript which has not been revised by The Jim Rutt Show or Damien Walter. Please check with us before using any quotations from this transcript. Thank you.
Jim: Today’s guest is Damien Walter. Damien’s a writer and a storyteller. He’s written for The Guardian, The BBC, Wired, Independent, Aeon and others. And he teaches the rhetoric of story and writing the 21st century myth to over 35,000 students worldwide. He’s host of the quite interesting Science Fiction Podcast. You can learn more about him at damiengwalter.com, damiengwalter@medium. He has a substack @Damien, and the podcast Science Fiction by Damien Walter. Of course, all those links will be on the Jim Rutt Show episode page at jimruttshow.com.
So welcome back. We tried to record this the other day and due to technical difficulties, it didn’t work. So we’re going to start from the top. One of the things I noticed when I looked at your website is that you pitched, I think it was your course, What Happens when Logos Meets Mythos: Reason Meets Imagination and Science Meets Fiction? The first thought that lept into my head was, “What about pathos and ethos?” The old classic aspects of Greek story architecture, one of my first loves in science fiction, Heinlein was really big on ethos. In fact, I’d argue in some sense his whole set of works was about what is it to be a right person? And on the other hand, science fiction has often been criticized for being thin on pathos. So Damien, take it away.
Damien: Oh, thank you very much for having me on the podcast on our second attempt here, Jim. I’m honored that you’ve woken up so early to have me back on the podcast.
Jim: Yeah, I wanted to get back on, ’cause I did all my prep, but in my semi senile state, the retention period isn’t what it used to be, so I wanted to get it back as quickly as possible so I could remember who the hell it was I was talking to.
Damien: Well, hopefully I remember what I’m doing. Yeah, that’s an interesting story. I mean, I’m a lifelong science fiction fan. I’m a third generation science fiction fan actually. So my grandfather was into Jules Vern and HG. Wells and had a large collection of those books. I never got to meet him, unfortunately. And then my mum, so it went through the maternal line then to my mum, who was really big into, well, I guess, fantasy for many people, JRR. Tolkien and CS Lewis. And also read a lot of Arthur C. Clark. So when I was about six or seven, I was already reading a lot of Arthur C. Clark and Tolkien and Lewis. And that has just became a lifelong fascination with science fiction, which now at the age of 45, has never really left me behind. And really, I’m a frustrated storyteller. I’m trying to write my own at some point, Lord of the Rings, maybe.
So through my life I’ve tried to learn as much about story and science fiction and fantasy and myth making as well. That’s become over many different phases of my life. And that led me, at one point, I wrote for The Guardian for six or seven years, a regular column on science fiction, more focused on books and got to know lots and lots of people in the science fiction writing world and community. I actually studied in America for six weeks on the Clarion Writer’s Workshop, where I got to meet lots of cool people, but I kind of took a little break from science fiction and was doing other things. And then during Covid, one of the things I do is curate online courses. The first of those was the rhetoric of story, which actually has over 50,000 students worldwide now on online platforms, which it’s really cool.
And then, yeah, during the covid lockdown, I came back to thinking a lot about science fiction. I reread stuff. So I was catching up with and started putting together basically my second big course, which is called Writing the 21st Century Myth. The thesis of the course is about how science fiction is modern myth making, and I wanted to talk to a range of people. So I arranged an interview, I was very lucky. I caught John Vervaeke, who I know you know very Well’s, who’s a regular guest on your podcast. And he agreed to do an interview with me. He’s actually a science fiction and a Star Trek fan. We’ve just recently this week in fact done another chat together about Star Trek. So that’ll be coming out at some point. But in that conversation about science fiction, we went through loads and loads of things, but at one point we were talking about science fiction and what these two words mean and that I was interested that they had kind of opposite meanings.
John talked about them as a symbol on, that in this collision of opposite meanings is quite a potent symbol on the. One hand science, our way of determining what is true and real, and on the other hand, fiction, which is untrue and unreal, but it might have deeper truths that are revealed in it. So as I was building up my course, this became the science fiction podcast. I started putting some of the lectures on there and the YouTube videos I was making. And I was quite surprised that this built up quite an audience actually. So we’ve been in the top 10 of the podcast charts in about 70 different countries now, which is cool.
So then I actually started running it properly as a podcast and trying to link together all of these ideas about reality and fantasy and mythos and logos, which is maybe the root of these ideas or logos and mythos, these ancient, well, classical Greek terms from one hand. The logos, which is, or your kind of logic and reasoning, and the mythos, which is all the stories of your culture. And of course Greek culture has this amazing mythos, which has still come down to us today. So that’s the root of that and a bit of a way into my interest in I guess how science fiction is making modern myths for us today. So I hope that answers your question, Jim.
Jim: Well, you didn’t say why you didn’t put some emphasis also on pathos and ethos.
Damien: Well, they do come in. They do come in. There’s a strong link between mythos and pathos, in one gives you, your mythos, gives you your kind of heightened stories of what humans may be able to achieve, our heroic side. But in storytelling terms, the pathos is the reality of life, the grittiness of existence. Historically we haven’t done a lot of… Well, maybe we haven’t recorded a lot of the pathos of our storytelling. It tends to be the mythic stories that survive through history. But you get that divide today between literary fiction, which is apparently looking at the pathos of life. Although I think there are elements of the constructed and the fantasy in there as well. And on the other hand, what’s often kind of dismissed as genre fiction, where a lot of science fiction and fantasy and horror and so on sit.
In terms of the ethos, I mean, I think about that a lot on the rhetoric of story. That’s kind of a major element of thinking about storytelling. But I haven’t really thought about it in relation to science fiction or whether science fiction is where we often turn to for our exemplars of how to live, of course in a heroic sense. But I guess we do get the figure of the scientist billionaire industrialist from there. Elon Musk has very successfully embodied in our culture or the scientist who manages to put together a time machine in their basement and go traveling through history. And I think that might be an archetype that we’ve drawn from science fiction. I don’t know, what do you think, Jim?
Jim: I think there’s lots of interesting ethos in science fiction, but not in all of science fiction. As I mentioned, I always thought Heinlein was great. Farnham’s Freehold, okay, the Libertarian dude, but who’s loyal to the death. And perhaps my favorite character in all of Heinlein, Jubal Harshaw, the lawyer in Stranger in a Strange Land, I suppose if I have any fictional characters I based myself on, it would be a cross between Jubal Harshaw and Gandalf. No, actually not Gandalf, Tom Bombadil even better. And I got a friend who actually sort of models himself on Michael Valentine’s, Smith, the Martian in Stranger in a Strange Land. So there is that, that how to live. And I think that’s actually always one of the reasons we read fiction is to get some insight into how other people think that right living might be.
And of course some of it’s just pure entertainment, genre fiction, the thriller type stuff, the pure mechanical crank them out, and there’s a lot of science fiction that’s like that too. But science fiction at its greatest, I think often does include ethos, though it does tend to be thin on pathos. I do read a lot of literary fiction and it is too much pathos in my book, right? It’s like, all right, you whiny fuckers. Shut the fuck up and go do something, right?
Damien: Yeah. If it doesn’t leave you feeling chronically depressed, it’s not great literature.
Jim: Yeah, exactly. I’m a total optimist and it’s totally not that way, but I nonetheless enjoy reading as an insight how other people think. So anyway, I think that’s interesting. So let’s move on a little bit. Let’s start out with one of the classic science fiction arguments. Are you a Star Trek or a Star Wars guy? If you have to pick one?
Damien: I’m more a Star Trek guy. I mean, Star Wars had… The first time I saw Star Wars was very early in the VHS video machine days and I was so obsessed with it that my mother actually had to borrow the video machine from the family who had it. So we could take that home and I could watch it six times in a row, but it didn’t last for me as something I was really interested in. I watched all of the movies I guess, and I think the recent Andor show is really good. But I’m much more Star Trek person, especially next generation. Next Generation, Deep Space 9 are my two big Star Trek obsessions and I would watch them obsessively when I was in my late teens and early twenties because there’s such a beautiful vision of humanity as at our most orderly and logical and positive and progressive as a species.
Unless you go to the mirror dimension, which I think is always a kind of end joke for the people making Trek, especially the actors, that they have a feeling that this is a bit more what the characters would actually be like if they had more pathos to them.
Jim: Spock with pathos, that’s an interesting concept. Of course the old argument would be that he was riddled with emotions but just couldn’t let it out because of his raising. Yeah, I would also come down on the side of Star Trek. However, I would also say that I remember watching the original Star Trek show when it came out and it was very riveting. Even though later when you go back and look at those things, the production values are so low, it’s so cheesy, it’s hilarious. But at the time it was so much better and more interesting and deep than any other network TV show, at least in the United States. But I have never watched, other than maybe one episode, each of some of the follow on series, the Next Generation or Deep Space 9, or what was it Battle Star Galactica? Was that part of Star Trek?
No, I think that was a ripoff of Star Trek. But anyway, I’m kind of anchored on the original. I have watched I think all the movies and I have always enjoyed those. But yes, I also come down as a Star Trek guy. I did watch Star Wars including the night it came out. A buddy of mine at the time, we were pseudo cinophiles. We had this theory that if you didn’t watch it the first night, the film had been degraded by running through the machine. We were idiots. So we went and saw it the first night, waited in line, long line, all that stuff. And I still have the same simple critique of Star Wars.
As a good American gun nut, I do a lot of shooting, I’ve been involved with gun sports and things of that sort. The damn troopers in Star Wars are the worst shots imaginable. I would love to go through and count how many shots they shoot that don’t hit anything. That just seems to be like a cheap storytelling technique that they use throughout that whole series. So all these bullets flying, nobody ever gets hit by the troopers. The empire’s storm troopers are the worst shots in all of cinema. And as a gun person, I just find that an objectionable cheat.
Damien: You have to accept Star Wars as what it is. There’s a great story that Mark Hamill tells where he says that he was pointing out to Harrison Ford who’s like after the trash compactor scene, he said, “Look, we’re all dry now, shouldn’t we still be wet? And Harrison Ford just turns to him and says, “It ain’t that kind of film, kid.” Star Wars just isn’t a mythic heroic storytelling in space. But I accept it as science fiction. And I’ve been arguing about that this week with the members of my science fiction community on Facebook. We have 26,000 members on there and it’s very active as well. So we have arguments that go on for days and days and days, and we’ve been talking about whether Star Wars is actually science fiction or not.
Jim: That’s an interesting question because you think about it does have the force and that Yoda and kind of the woo-ish stuff to it. So does that push it over the line into fantasy or not? Of course, to my mind, that line between fantasy and science fiction, there really isn’t a crisp line in my book. So if you had a big old map, I’ll just make up an answer here, what the hell, right? It’s science fiction near the boundary with fantasy and maybe a little overlap, something like that.
Damien: Yeah, well science fiction fans tend to be obsessive categorizes, which is why there’s so many different sub-genres of science fiction as well. So I think that the science fiction fantasy divide is kind of an artificial categorization. I think they’re the same thing that manifests in different ways. They’re both kind of big mythic storytelling. And then what happened in the science fiction world was that because there were these two categories that lots of things fell between. There’s also a subgenre of science fantasy, which many people categorize, Star Wars adds. But for me, the label science fantasy doesn’t really make any sense because I think if you were going to change a word, it would be the science bit and maybe you would call it fantasy fiction instead. But I do have some reasoning for why I think Star Wars is science fiction. I think it’s all about how far you extend science really.
There’s that famous line from Arthur C. Clark where he says, “Any sufficiently advanced technology would be indistinguishable from magic.” If you backwards engineer that idea, wherever we push our technology to, it’s going to end up looking kind of magical to us because we always use our technology to fulfill our will in the world, our ability to do things. So if you extend that either a thousand years in the future or to a galaxy far, far away, you can have a technological explanation for everything in Star Trek, including the force, if you want one. And a lot of the ideas come from other science fiction. A lot of them come from Isaac Asimov actually like the hyper drive. That’s something that Asimov explored first, the idea of hyperspace as a means of traveling between star systems, which for me is one of the more realistic actually forms of interstellar travel for something that may never be possible for us.
Jim: And of course, that’s one of the interesting things about science fiction. You make a couple of these key extrapolations either reasonable or not, and then you base a whole world upon that. It’s funny, I was a hardcore nonfiction reader. I started reading science books when I was five and I was fortunately tall. When you went to the library during class, when you were in first grade, they made you get books from the kids’ shelf, stupid ass Dr. Seuss books and shit like that. I had no interest in those. But I discovered by accident, stopped by the library after school on the way to the school bus, particularly if you’re tall, they didn’t know who the hell you were, they didn’t care what book you took out. So I started taking out science books, and that’s all I read. Science books, a little bit of history.
And then fortunately I had a pretty wise third grade teacher who actually took me personally to the school library and handed me a book by someone named Andre Norton and said, “You might like this.” And I read it and I go, “That’s kind of cool.” I read a bunch of her stuff and then I got into Heinlein and a few others. And then the gateway, I made the giant mistake of reading the Foundation Trilogy when I was 10. And I’ve found a lot of people who for whatever reason did that. And I think you mentioned the idea of psycho history is a dangerously bad idea. I think it took me years to be deprogrammed from the concept that with enough knowledge, we could predict the future, 10,000 years in the future or something.
And it’s funny, I am now of course, a complexity science guy. I’ve been affiliated with the Santa Fe Institute for 20 years, and one of the main holdings of complexity science is we don’t know shit about the future, that the unfolding of high dimensional complex systems, particularly argentic ones, i.e., ones with animals in them that can have agency, is so unpredictable that you shouldn’t even try to think you could model out a complex system in any detail very far off. And so in fact, at Santa Fe Institute, it’s somewhat of an insult to call somebody Harry Seldon.
Damien: Well, I think Asimov would appreciate that. I think psycho history is an idea that he came up with when he was very young and he ended up in the science fiction world and he met up with John W. Campbell, the great science fiction editor. And Campbell was trying to change science fiction, which in American Magazine publishing was super pulpy and had a very low reputation. He is really the editor that gives the idea of science fiction having some real grounding in science as opposed to just being fantasy like Buck Rogers perhaps. So he’s trying to find writers to do that. And Asimov has a pitch meeting with him basically. And Asimov has been reading, oh, I forget the name, Edward Gibbon, the Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, which is this really foundational history for the liberal conception of history. Basically that history progresses over time.
And Gibbon had extrapolated this from the history of the Roman Empire into modernity. So foundation draws on all of that. So very loosely, the foundation is kind of the Americas and the colonies and the empire that’s collapsing is the British Empire, or you could cast it as the Roman Empire as well. But it’s all about the evolution of civilizations. So he has to put something at the heart of this. So he has the idea of psycho history, which I think is a brilliant idea to have when you are 22 or something that he had it. But in the later books, he starts taking it apart and showing how that history can’t really be guided this way because I think he’s done much more thinking about politics and geopolitics and so on at that point. Did he read the later books, Jim?
Jim: What do you mean the later books?
Damien: Well, he wrote the original trilogy and then there are later foundation books. I’m not sure when the fourth one is, but then the fifth one is the late 1980s and it was actually Asimov’s big bestseller at the time.
Jim: I did not. I read a fair bit of Asimov, but I eventually got tired of his fairly pedestrian writing style, though I did one time. This is an interesting science fiction, weird little autobiographical fact. Totally forgot about this. I read Asimov’s famous story, The Last Question, and I was so taken by it. I read it over the phone to my high school girlfriend, the whole thing.
Damien: How did that go?
Jim: She loved it.
Jim: She was a nerd girl, so what the hell?
Damien: As a teenager, I was very into Dune and the Dune movie, David Lynch’s Dune movie, and I probably showed it to two or three girlfriends who all broke up with me soon afterwards. So I twigged, that’s why it was I think.
Jim: Interesting, interesting. Let’s move on to another near topic. I noticed on your podcast. Was it your podcast was on your Guardian? I don’t remember. ’cause I did a little float around that you wrote something, The Truth of Myth, JRR Tolkien and the Return of the Mythos. Tolkien is one of my favorites. I have read Lord of the Rings 34 times, including about six months ago. Every year or two I go back and dig into it and it is to my mind just the best example so far of somebody creating a really, really interesting, complicated world that has all those elements of logos, mythos, pathos and ethos.
Damien: Yeah, I mean The Lord of the Rings, so that that’s actually the last part of my course is the ninth lecture, because I have this ongoing back and forth in the course writing the 21st century myth about what the value of myth is because you can think of myth as fantasy. So humans have just been inventing fantasies for thousands of years that make us feel better about the world, fantasies of gods and heroes. And we can tell these stories and really, really enjoy them. They make us feel better about our place in the world, but we don’t have to imbue them with any more meaning than that. But then of course, like myths are the foundation of all our great religions. So we do have real belief in them as well. So the eighth talk is about fantasy and what we do with fantasy storytelling. And then the ninth one, I turn that the other way and ask, when we tell mythic stories, do they communicate some real picture of the world beyond our ability to understand it?
I think I’m not a full Tolkien scholar, so more knowledgeable Tolkien scholars might correct me or argue with me. But I think Tolkien saw myth that way. I think he saw it as a picture of the truest reality in the way that many very religious people do. And Tolkien was a pretty devout Catholic, as was Lewis as well, his great friend. I think the two of them together with their compatriot, whose name has fallen out of my head. And he was quite a famous British philosopher and also a theosophist who had very deep spiritual beliefs about the nature of myth. And both Lewis and Tolkien were in a kind of a trio. They were all members of the inklings together. I think from that, Lewis and Tolkien went in different directions. So Lewis very kind of literally represented the Christian mythos in Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and the land of Narnia through to killing his Messianic character, Aslan.
But I think for a lot of people that when I discovered when I was about 12 and I was already at the time very atheist, very anti-God. And when I discovered it was a Christian allegory, I was very angry with Lewis, actually genuinely quite angry. But Tolkien goes another way. He’s not writing allegorically, he’s very keen to make that point to people who talk to him about Lord of the Rings. He is trying to do what he talks about as mythopia, which is the art of creating a new mythos for the modern world by bringing back and synthesizing lots of the northern European myths, which it’s true had been somewhat forgotten from the culture.
Tolkien was also involved in bringing back Beowulf, translating Beowulf, and bringing it more back into popular circulation. So in Lord of the Rings, he’s doing that, that act of mythopia, that act of bringing back a myth. And if you look at the cultural impact of Lord of the Rings from the 1960s onwards when it really starts to escape into mass culture, not just directly, but the extent to which it’s been imitated. If you play a video game, now half of them are set in the token esque fantasy land that probably wouldn’t be being used now if not for Tolkien.
Jim: And certainly Dungeons and Dragons and everything that came from that was a complete ripoff of Tolkien.
Damien: There are other people as well, like Jack Vance is a big influence on Dungeons and Dragons, but Tolkien is really the main figure of bringing middle earth into our reality as a place. I speculate in that ninth talk about the extent to which we might be living in middle earth in the near future as we’ve got our Apple headsets on now and we can immerse ourself in these worlds that we are building. I think of them as the unreal that we are bringing into reality. I think middle earth might become a pseudo-real place to us that we spend a lot of time walking around and meeting Tom Bombadil perhaps when he shows up.
Jim: That would be quite interesting. Yeah, I think I read, started reading the trilogy in 1967. Me and my best friend were reading it sort side by side and just talking about it constantly. Then interestingly, that same girl that I read the last question to over the phone, a few years later, she wanted to know about my obsession of the Lord of the Rings. And we were out walking around late at night in the summertime and we sat under a bush on the edge of the woods and she wanted me to tell her the story of the Lord of the Rings. And I said, “How much time you got?” And she said, “As much as it takes.”
By the time I’d probably read it eight or nine times, I was reading it every three months at that point. So I went to excruciating detail. Hilariously about midnight, I had gotten the band to Rivendale and we both fell asleep and we didn’t wake up till the sun came up. So we had some explaining to do when we got home. Amazingly, my parents actually believed the true story that I told them. I guess they knew me well enough to know. Her parents were somewhat skeptical, but they were on the much more liberal side than my parents, so she didn’t get into any trouble.
Damien: One of those times when you’re always tempted to make up a lie because the truth is so unbelievable.
Jim: But it was absolutely true, and it took me almost three hours to get the hobbits to Rivendale, and then we fell asleep. But to the moral question of Lord of the Rings, I love the way you distinguished between Lewis and his heavy Catholic allegory and Tolkien, who if anything, was an even more fanatic Catholic. But Lord of the Rings or his whole middle earth is not that at all. It’s a parallel creation. One of the reasons I believe that’s so important, perhaps what drew me to it, is I became a militant atheist after being raised a Catholic at the age of 11. So I always recoil from anything that’s obviously Christian allegory, Godammit, right? If you’re going to tell me fairy stories, label them appropriately. But Lord of the Rings I read accurately, I think when I learned more about Tolkien, I realized I intuited his non-allegorical nature.
Of course he says so right in the foreword though. Of course we know authors often lie about their motives, but that’s another story for another day. And my own take on it is that it is a completely alternative metaphysics, right? Iluvatar creates the universe in the beginning, the one, and all that. Okay. That’s a little bit like old Yahweh pulling a rabbit out of his hat. But after that, the metaphysics is far more complicated and very different. But in this very different metaphysical universe, right and wrong still shine through, the difference between Aragon and Boromir or between Gandalf and Saruman or between Golem and Frodo, right?
I mean, it’s an extraordinarily moral work. And so as a militant atheist, I take away from that, you don’t need no stinking Yahweh to have morality, right? You could have good and evil and good people, and we can know the difference without having to appeal to some musty old book written in the desert 3000 years ago. I think it’s one of the reasons I’ve been such a partisan of his work, despite the fact that he was a fanatic Catholic because he showed that you didn’t need Yahwehism to have morality.
Damien: Well, I would actually categorize Tolkien rather than with most other fantasy writers, which are kind of generic, often copies of Tolkien, are people like the World War I War poets like Siegfried Sassoon and a number of others, Wilfred Owen, because the first World War experience clearly shaped a lot of the sense of loss and grief that’s at the heart of Lord of the Rings, the scarring of the landscape, which are also Tolkien’s experiences of industrialization and his sense of what good and evil are.
And I think the person he really shared that sensibility with actually is George Orwell. So I sometimes call Lord of the Rings is 1984 plus Hobbits because they have the lot of the same symbols. So in 1984, Big Brother is an eye that is watching you. You never meet Big Brother. And Sauron is a burning eye who is watching you and you never see him within the context of the story. They’re both totalitarian powers as well over the world. And you could think of 1984 as kind of a world in which Sauron won, where the totalitarian power has bent everybody else to their will and the way that Sauron corrupts the kings of man, the nine kings who become the Nazgal. So us, of course, they’re very different stories in many ways, I think their conception of what evil is and how power exerts evil in the world are very, very closely related and though people are very, very similar generations, kind of cultural backgrounds as well.
Jim: That’s interesting. I have to think about that some. I haven’t reread 1984 since 1984 when I sat down to read it a second time. So maybe it’s due for a third reading. I mean, there’s certain aspects of our world today that makes you kind of want to revisit that. But let’s move on, one of the things that you have said is that as the world moves towards more automation, [inaudible 00:32:38], I think get to AI. You say only a creator culture can save us. What did you mean when you said that?
Damien: Yeah, I had been, doing early in my career, I went to university in Leicester, which is a great city in the UK, but a very poor city for Britain, or was at the time the poorest city in Britain, big immigrant communities. I ended up basically as a community worker in Leicester because whilst I was studying there, I started teaching writing workshops in libraries. Very nicely, the local council basically created a job for me to do that, which I stayed and did for about six, seven years in Leicester, working with lots of people who are really isolated and cut off and on the edges of society, working with them to kind of rebuild identity. I didn’t really know what I was doing. I was very young at the time, but it was a very formative experience. One of the things I came to when I finished that work, I wrote this essay for Aeon Magazine that what I had observed is that as people created things, it wasn’t about becoming famous, although those kind of drives always come up when people explore their creativity.
But as you create something, like if you get to the point where you can write a book or make a painting, something about you actually changes. So we make ourselves through creation. And I was studying a lot of Carl Jung at the time who had been through this process, he had a famous period of his life where he gave up his professional psychiatric practice, retreated to his kind of tower on the banks of Lake Geneva and plunged into his imagination and wrote all of the stuff that would become his later theories, which were his most famous work.
From that I was trying to extrapolate as well, like a political idea about what kind of direction do we need in the world. So that essay proposes that instead of being all about consuming, we need to try and empower people to be creators, not to be famous, not so everyone is pursuing internet stardom or to be an Instagram influencer, which is what creativity has become about around us, but so that people have that growth and fulfillment. Stuff I’d probably add to that now is that if we look at our existential problems facing us now. Even something like very serious, the fact that the technology is out there to make chemical weapons in your basement or biological weapons that we can’t authoritarianly push down on that. We need a culture of people who have more and more of the intelligence and wisdom together that thing John Vivaeke talks about. So that kind of fret hits a big mesh of creative, super intelligent humans.
Jim: Yeah, that’s the hope. I mean, and this is an interesting knife’s edge, just as Gandalf talks about the quest being on the knife’s edge of success or failure. I think the human race is on the knife’s edge of success or failure. We have the game B Movement, the whole theory on what we need to build on the other side of this. But it’s a very hard road to get from here to there. I do think creative culture is certainly part of that, because certainly if we had the will to not be caught in more, more, more consumptive patterns of life, we are already within striking distance of being able to provide a decent standard of living to every human on earth. I’ve done some calculations, and just using it as a crude surrogate energy consumption per capita, while not fully inclusive of all the harm we’re doing to the ecosystem and to each other and to our psyche does at least a very rough cut on standard of living and our impact on the ecosystem.
By my calculations, by 2080, we could be producing about 4,000 watts per person for the whole earth in a carbon-neutral or very close to carbon-neutral fashion. You say, well, what’s 4,000 watts mean? I’ll give you a sense. United States, Australia and Canada, the big offenders, are all around 11 to 12,000 watts, about three times that level. Sub-Saharan Africa, Bangladesh, Nepal, Myanmar, they’re under 500, right? So they’re a 20th of the energetic intensity of the United States, Canada and Australia. Western Europe and Japan, about 8,000. An interesting example for me is Portugal, about 4,000. And Portugal is not a flagrantly rich country, but it’s not a depressingly poor country either. People live quite well in Portugal. They haven’t used advanced technologies to minimize their energy consumption or anything else. So if everybody on earth, all 8 billion, by then 9 billion people, 10 billion people could converge to a world of around 4,000 watts intensity, we could all live like the Portuguese.
And by that point, much of the actual production and work will be automated. You know that book, fully automated luxury communism, is really not that far outside of our grasp of humanity so long as we can get off this more, more, more shiny stuff treadmill. And of course, the problem is what’s the alternative, right? Well, if you look back at 95% of human history, the forage or epoch, people didn’t have possessions because you were moving all the time. The most possession you’d have would be a knife, a spear, and maybe your favorite woven basket with a pot in it, probably not even a pot. That came later. So it is possible for humans to live without the love of stacking up shiny objects and taking jet trips so they can take selfies on the edge of a cliff or some crazy ass shit like that. And it may be that the creator culture might be that alternative, and certainly it can be for numerous people, but we don’t know how. Any thoughts on your side on if you took a hundred people, how many of them would actually find fulfillment in creation?
Damien: Yeah, I had a friend who read that essay at the time that I wrote it, and he was a very blunt spoken Scottish man. He said to me, “But Damien, what about the dimbos?” Which was his way of saying, all of those people who are just going out and consuming because they can’t find anything else to do. So my optimistic idea is that… And this is genuine observation, that when people find something creative in a very broad sense that engages them, they really begin more and more to opt out of consumption because that thing is channeling all of their attention. I observed this a lot on the internet, especially at the time when kind of older people were joining the internet who were really deep into consumption. But when they found the sports community that they’re into, and they got some status in that community, so that was a little bit creative for them, they’d be much less interested in whatever consumptive patterns they had. You have a big trend in the UK of young people not drinking or going out to pubs.
Jim: Who the hell would’ve thought that? The damn Brit, who are the worst sots on Earth pretty much. But now it’s a trend amongst the young people to be dry.
Damien: It’s because young people have other things to do. They’ve grown up playing Minecraft online, and of course a lot of them are just doing those negative things online, which I won’t list at the moment. But a lot of it is very positive and creative. They have massive friend groups, massive collaborative projects. They’re involved with huge games. It might be a pseudo form of creativity at that stage, but it’s still the experience of creativity. So I think we’re probably going in this direction, and I think humans naturally are creators. But we’ve had a solid 300 years of industrial culture where everybody need to be trained to just conform to a system. But now those systems are quickly falling apart and AI is probably going to smash them apart. I think AI, my current take on it, because who really knows how it’s going to evolve is that it will empower creativity rather than doing the creativity. I think there’s great use it. I know that you are working with… You’ve been doing script writing. Can you actually auto-generate an entire script?
Jim: Yeah. Well this is interesting, and I’ve now got a small group of collaborators, including a couple people from Hollywood and the semi-pro script writer. In fact, it was he and I came up with this idea together. And what the main focus, you’re absolutely right, is an intimately interwoven with a person in a whole lots and lots of intricate steps to be able to create a full script, but with the writer or the human in the loop in many, many places. However, I also found that you can go from what’s called the movie hint, which could be as little as three sentences to a full script with the press of a button. It’s not the greatest script in the world, but people looked at it and say, not terrible. But I will say, if you’re going to get a really good script, you got to have the human in the loop in multiple places.
But the AI takes care of a tremendous amount of the hard work. And it also, and I think this is potentially a bigger potential product than one might think, there are many people who are creative in the space of ideas and understand what an interesting character is and an interesting plot. But they’re not fluid with written words. They’re not writers, but they’re thinkers and they’re storytellers in the oral tradition. Think about our forager in 95% of our history, the shaman who are the storyteller around the campfire wasn’t somebody who had done enough writing to have a very nice writing style. They had a different way of crafting story. So my thought is that things like my Script Helper program and similar things\, which are coming for other genres, will open the door for creativity to people who have ideas and deep felt sense of right and wrong and what character ought to be and maybe understand folk psychology, but don’t have the technical skills to write beautiful prose or even to structure complicated prose.
Then if you combine Script Helper with what’s coming soon, which is text to video, people will actually be able to create actual video artifacts from a relatively small amount of written words and iterative interaction with tools like Script Helper. I think that’d be quite interesting. In fact, yesterday I did a podcast with Rob Tercek, a Hollywood guy, and his prediction is that Hollywood is doomed and doesn’t know it because the world is about to be overwhelmed with vast quantities of non-copyrighted, but pretty good material. And of course, Sturgeon’s law, 90% of everything is shit. But if there’s a million custom-made movies created, a hundred thousand of them aren’t shit, and maybe 10,000 of them are actually good. And you consider that Hollywood puts out three or 400 movies a year. If there’s 10,000 pretty good ones that come from the commons, shall we say, and are not copyrighted, they’re in the commons, will there be any room left for Hollywood? Or will most people find something in this 10,000 good ones out of the million that are created, and 95% of their video consumption will be there from a commons?
And as you say, not for people trying to be rich, but rather for people who won’t have a story to tell and hope that somebody will pick it up, but they don’t even get any remuneration for it or very modest remuneration. But for the joy of the act of creation, that would be a very interesting and different world than this world where the video that we consume is created in this part to program us to stay within the culture of consumption and material status. Because there’ll always be status games in society. We are chimpanzees and bonobos who wear clothes, so we will always be playing status games, but they don’t have to be about shiny objects and stacking up money.
You can have a status game of who’s the best storyteller, who’s got the deepest spirituality, who can make a fire by rubbing two sticks together, who’s good with archery? There’s many, many, many, many dimensions of status competition, which we have foolishly allowed to be collapsed to basically two, which are money and beauty. That collapsed to those two things as to my mind fairly close to what is driving our society over the cliff. I’m with you that I think that a creator culture is at least a piece of finding our way across this knife’s edge to the other side.
Damien: Going down that optimistic route, I think Hollywood… Because there’s two things happening in Hollywood. There’s some really brilliant creators who I greatly admire, and then there’s a whole industry that is built around them, and the industry, I think everybody is sick of at this point. So I talk quite a lot on the science fiction podcast about the corporate entertainment franchise, which is what sadly has happened to things like Star Wars and Star Trek and criminally like Lord of the Rings, is that they’re treated by these big corporate entities as something that they can buy and sell like a chain of coffee shops or fast food. So it is literally a franchise of that kind. And their only interest, of course, is in building up the value of the franchise.
Jim: I was so pissed off by the newest Lord of the Rings series that was put out. It was like the worst piece of shit imaginable. The first episode was like, oh my God, maybe it’ll get better. Maybe it was the pilot. And it got worse. It violated all the ethos of Tolkien. It was like, what the fuck? How could this be considered to be part of the middle earth thing? Even though I am the most fanatic Tolkienian, most people I know, know, I have said, I am not going to watch season two the gotdamn thing when it comes out. I’ve even watched all the gotdamn hobbit movies, which aren’t that good, but they’re at least good enough and they don’t violate the ethos of the world.
Damien: Some good moments. Bilbo and Gollum is pretty great on the Hobbit movies. And I think the edit that just makes it one movie is pretty good, actually.
Jim: That would be worthwhile. Cook it all down to about three hours instead of taking what should have been one three hour movie and turning it into three, two and a half hour movies. But anyway, yeah, they’re turning these things into literal commodities. Think about what happens in a late stage financialized capitalist economy is the only value anything has it’s ability to squeeze money on money return out of it. No other value is allowed to survive under the pressure of that machine. And to desecrate these great works of art that way is just horrifying.
Damien: I think they’re going to lose though to exactly the things we’re talking about here. So do you know Games Workshop? It’s very UK-centric, War Hammer, 40,000. So it’s a big tabletop gaming set 40,000 years in the future.
Jim: I know about the game. Yeah, because we have a little nerd store about two blocks down for where our in town pied-à-terre is. That’s all they do is War Hammer, whatever it is, 40,000 or something. They have all the stuff they’re selling. They got tables set up with hairy and dirty nerds crouched around them 12 hours a day. It’s pretty crazy. Is it worth looking into? Is it good?
Damien: Well, what’s happened is that the fans are much more creative about War Hammer than Games workshop is. So they 3D print their own miniatures from patterns which are shared in the fandom and things like Unreal Engine. So if you look on YouTube, there’s all kinds of War Hammer animated movies from non Gaines Workshop people. Really when you think about it, the fans really own the franchise, but legally, it’s still owned by Games Workshop and they will chase people down from making these movies sometimes. But I think Hollywood is just going to lose this battle, especially with things like AI, because I don’t think it’s going to be really about making a 90-minute movie or a three-hour movie. We are moving into a video game, virtual world reality. But those games won’t for a very long time be self generating. They’re going to be massive creations of huge collaborative groups of people.
So a major form of storytelling, and already is in things like Minecraft, but this will become very common, is your level in a game, the adventure that you’ve designed and the NPCs that people meet. Because of the bulk, that will be something that AI will contribute to helping people write. A lot of it, of course will be trash via Sturgeon’s law, and people won’t go to those parts of the game, but some of it will be brilliant and millions of people will go on those quests and follow those stories and those level designs.
I think what people really want is to have the freedom to do that if that’s their form of creativity in the world once they find it, rather than having to turn up for whatever kind of meaningless cubicle job they’re doing, which is probably just contributing to one of these corporate structures and feel frustrated that they can’t just put their time into making these worlds. Or I don’t think it’s just going to be games either, I think we’re going to have huge collaborative science projects, a bit like the Seti Project where people were processing star data on their computer for all kinds of things where we’re processing massive amounts of data to make huge discoveries as well. That’s what humans should be doing.
Jim: Norbert Wiener’s famous book, The Humane Use of Human Beings, he was a early father and writer about cybernetics, and he saw it back in the early 50 that the potential was there. But I think he didn’t understand, and I think John Maynard Keynes famously said in the 30s that by the 60s we’ll be down to working 15 hours a week due to the fruits of automation. And what neither of them could see was the ability of the money on money machine to hijack our brains and program us to think in terms of our status, in terms of our possessions or our positional goods, or the beauty game. The beauty game, I really feel sorry for the teenage girls now who are caught in this absurd beauty loop on Instagram with the arms race of these artificial beautifiers. And think about how weird that would be if you’ve highly identified yourself with your Instagram presentations yourself, that’s highly manipulated by beautifying filters, and then you look in the mirror in the morning. What does that do to you?
And so no wonder there’s a skyrocketing epidemic of mental health amongst teenage females, at least in the Anglosphere. I don’t know why it’s worse in the Anglosphere than elsewhere, but it seems to be. And again, this is not a good and healthy thing. But if you are a advertising supported vehicle that wants to have you on the system as long as possible rather than for you to get the maximized benefit for what you’re paying for, then that’s what you’ll end up with. Money on, money return, we’ll say, let us build a culture and a cult of teenage girls obsessing over their beauty, getting into an arms race with beauty filters and then feeling horrible about themselves when they look in the mirror. I mean, that’s the fucked up result of the system we have today.
Damien: Yeah, an aspect of creativity is that to get to a point where you can fulfill yourself creatively, it usually means unpicking lots of addictions, which I don’t mean in the chemical addiction sense, although that’s often part of it as well, but any kind of addictive behavior in your life. So for lots of young men at the moment, the two main things between them and their potential in life are addictive video games and pornography online, which are both media phenomenon basically. These are incredibly powerful. The tools of gamification that are deployed in video games, I’m going to do a big video essay on this for people because I don’t think especially the young men who are caught in these traps understand what the games are doing at all.
How gamified, even the application of meaning so you can give people the fake sense of meaning and achievement in a game to keep them coming back to the game over and over again. It’s not like the days where there were a small subset of young men when I was a kid who would play fruit machines, gambling machines in pubs. This is much more powerful than that and it can get almost anyone who falls into these traps online. These are all the same tools of creativity. The things that you might use to create great art can also be used to create these addictive loops that you keep people in for your profit.
Jim: Yeah, your money on money returned by hijacking people’s dopamine signals. One of the worst things I ever heard in my life was from one of the big wheels in Silicone Valley. I always call it Silicone Valley intentionally, just to show how fake it all is, right? To give the analogy to fake tits, that his view of the world is, oh yeah, most people will be reduced to something like a proletariat state. They’ll be waiters and bartenders and baristas at Starbucks, but they’ll be able to come home and get into the fully strapped on virtual reality and have a castle and drive a Lamborghini. And that’s how we’ll keep the pearls down. And I go, dude, man, I think if I had a guillotine company, I would use that as my ad, right? I’d have rolling guillotines on mounted on casters, you could push through the street and that would be my marketing material right there.
Damien: Yeah, I don’t know who’s going to win this contest.
Jim: We’re at a knife edge, as Gandalf warned us. We are not guaranteed to win at all.
Damien: Maybe that’s why I come back to myth. So I’ve done in science fiction, because I think for me, when I was very lost as a younger man, science fiction was one of the things that helped me find a way out of that because the stories are so powerful. So something like the Matrix, what you’re being told in the Matrix is quite true. There’s a lot of great symbolism in there about the situation that you kind of find yourself in as a standard human being in our capitalist society. So much of it is interwoven with these control mechanisms to make you a battery. It’s very difficult to say this stuff directly. I do a lot of work as a critic and I know that there’s a certain point of, if what I’m saying directly, literally in criticism, broke through a certain point, I get lots and lots of attack from that. And at some point the attack would probably become unbearable. I guess, I’d been Twitter dog piled few times in the past, but much from that, whereas myth and storytelling can work much more powerfully to get past that.
Jim: Interesting. Now what interesting thing about the Matrix, as you say it is allegorically, very interesting, but I am a little put off by the fact that red pill has been hijacked, essentially mean become wise to the ways of misogyny or something like that. I go, what the hell? The guys that did, now gals I guess, that did the Matrix would not be pleased with that use of the concept at all I do not believe.
Damien: Yeah, that’s a really interesting phenomenon of this. So there’s a number of these, but that’s probably the main one. So the Matrix has been picked up by people like Andrew Tate.
Jim: I vaguely know who it is, not in my world, but apparently is the number one biggest influencer, or at least was where he got slammed of like 14-year-old boys. Sorry.
Damien: Yeah. I mean, there’s other people I could name, but if you name them in this kind of podcast, it’s like summoning them. So I don’t want to bring them all to your podcast, Jim. But there’s a lot of these people out there who are selling to these young men who are trapped in video games and porn, basically. The idea that there is this thing like The Matrix, and there is this red pill you can take to get out of it, but then they associate it to this very reactionary value set, which is much easier to understand that the problem is… And this has always been a phenomenon, so the problem is like this tiny number of transgender cultural critics who get an incredible amount of attack from these kind of Reddit type communities, 4chan type communities, because this is how difficult the knife’s edge is that we’re on, that even the experience of awakening from the Matrix can be subverted into a kind of moneymaking scam.
Jim: Oh man, just look at all the self-help gurus out there and the TikTok influencers, again, they’re all trying to scamify with John Verve. In fact, they’re the highest rated shows ever on my podcast. I had him on for 10 hours where we did his Awakening from the Meaning Crisis, which is a 50-hour video series. We cooked it down to about 10 hours of very intense audio. And I must say, I am impressed as that my audience loves those episodes. Cause when I’d made them, I famously spent 10 hours on average researching each episode that I do. I spent about 30 hours researching each one of those five episodes, and they are extremely deep. The top two episodes of all my episodes are both from that series and all five of them are in the top 17. So kudos to the Jim Rutt show audience for having the depth to go with John Vervaeke’s, awakening from the Meaning Crisis series.
But yes, if the money on money machine is what transmutes all values to shit, it can even transmit the idea of awakening from the meaning crisis to shit, unfortunately. Now, games, let’s talk about games a little bit. When I was a really intense gamer from age of 10 to about 22, but they were all tabletop games, they were mostly the Avalon Hill War games with the little square pieces with the military unit symbols on them. And I even developed some, me a friend of mine created some. I created one of the first Lord of the Rings risk variants and printed a few copies and had friends do it. But they were all on tabletops and they were all very social, right? I have dabbled a little bit over the years in computer games, almost not at all on console games, but none of them for me ever had the magic of the tabletop games with five people around a table arguing and making fun of each other and what have you.
But turning it into a solitary pursuit seems to have been perhaps a thing that allowed it to become this highly addicting thing. And of course, moving from tabletop with very abstract, here’s my army is a little square piece with a tank tread on it, to actually being five feet away from a tank, shooting a flamethrower, and you have your anti-tank on and you shoot the tank and it blows up, very much more immersive kinds of things than my days of gaming addiction. I was never addicted because it’s not that addicting when it’s at that level of abstraction, but when it’s at this deeper level, it gets the hooks in much deeper.
Damien: Yeah, well, there’s two kinds of game in any really successful game. The classic example of this is the high scoreboard on an arcade machine and the realization by the game companies that you had space invaders or whatever the game was Street Fighter 2, was the one for my generation and I would go to the arcade to play the game, but actually because I wanted my name on that high scoreboard. So there’s the graphically represented game, and then there’s all the actual game structures underneath that. And if you look at the games today, it’s the game structures underneath, things like loot crates in big online battle royale games. And that keys into a number of cognitive biases that people have. You’re kind of training people in a Pavlovian response so that they don’t know what’s going to be in the box, and usually it’s lower value than what they’re paying for it.
And it’s all digital goods anyway, but sometimes it’s going to pay out something really big and everything in the game is therefore just a massive addiction engine. This is something that John Vervaeke, or someone similarly skilled could dig into much more deeply. I’m aware of it on a kind of creator’s level and someone who had to un-addict myself from these games many years ago now. But I had a pretty addictive gaming habit for Counterstrike at the time, which I played for months solidly. And that had all of these game structures built into it as well. But I think in large part of the answer is awareness to them. The first step is understanding that these addictive behavior shaping techniques are all being deployed in these games.
Jim: Yeah, that’s interesting. If you’re right about the future of being a creator’s world where people become more and more immersed in the creations of peers, maybe the 1% that’s good out of the free space, perhaps going to be important that we find some way to help guide people or nudge people or even regulate such that dopamine hijacking is not the principal aim of these things. But unfortunately, even if all you’re interested in is fame and you’re not going to get paid, if you have something that’s very, very dopamine hijacking, you’ll have a million users as opposed to the sweeter, softer, or more brutal, but less intentionally dopamine, hijacking alternatives. What do you think about that? The ecosystem that favors the exact kinds of exploits even in a non-commercial world?
Damien: Yeah. I struggle with this as a teacher, for instance, a teacher of writing and storytelling that in fact, I deliberately, my course is called the Rhetoric of Story because it’s the least marketing type title that I could give it, and it is literally what it’s about as well. It has been very successful actually, which is surprising in some ways. I do have some structures in there, like I structure around seven foundations of storytelling. So that would be quite a simple communication strategy to make it a list in that way. But that’s kind of a bit of a compromise. But in the online teaching space, it’s the worst teaching, which will sell the best in many ways. So in the writing space, it’s things like how to write 5,000 words a day for your book. It just teaches these kind of very routine techniques that an AI can definitely do to kind of crank out prose for your self-publishing books because it appeals to a much lower desire in people that we can just have the outcome.
So we always have to remember that it is about who we are as humans as well. We’re very biased towards simple solutions and getting things without putting in the work, getting the honey at the top of the tree that somebody else has done the climbing for. But once we recognize that, then you can actually start to consciously work around it. But it’s deeply frustrating. I find it as a teacher that, well, it’s also about where you position yourself in relation to the worst player on a field. There’s the most virtuous player and the most evil player, and the most virtuous player is doomed to lose. So you have to position yourself somewhere realistically that you can compete with the spectrum of bad players who are out there as well.
Jim: In our game B-theory, we call that the multipolar trap, where the example I like to use is, let’s imagine we’re in the soft drink business in 1978, and we all sell soft drinks with cane sugar in them. And again, we’re going to hypothesize that high fructose corn syrup is worse for you. The scientific evidence isn’t clear, but let’s assume that it is. Archer Daniel Midlands Corporation has a chemical engineering breakthrough and they can now manufacture high fructose corn syrup for a third of the price of cane sugar, but nobody switches in the soft drink world ’cause they’ve all been cane sugar traditionalist. But one guy does switch. He’s been taken over by private equity, let’s say, and is nothing but about the bottom line. So he switches out and his costs, sugar being by far the number one ingredient, drop by half. He can now out compete and have higher private margin or lower price and gain market share against everybody else.
And they’re all forced to respond with the same action. So even though they didn’t really want to, they’re forced to by one bad actor. And you see that again and again and again. That fits exactly your case. If all were virtuous teachers of writing, then they could all be virtuous teachers of writing. But if that is not an evolutionary stable strategy, as we say, an evolutionary theory, if an invader comes into your space with schlock, write 5,000 words a day and write a bestseller, or here are the five rules for all writing. I’ve seen all that crap as you have no doubt on online ads. And that actually out competes virtuous rhetorically founded theories of writing, then you have a problem.
So one of the things we struggle with in the game B World is one of the principles by which a commons can expel invaders and not tolerate the invaders rather than force all the players in any given activity to respond by becoming the worst players in the category. I will say we do not yet have an answer, but we have identified it as one of the key problems for building the world that comes after the one we’re living in.
Damien: Maybe Tolkien understood some of this on the most intuitive level because something that he’s talking about in Lord of the Rings is the way that evil eats itself over time. It consumes itself. And you see this in Hollywood at the moment as it has become much more of a corporate enterprise. I think the idea of independent filmmakers competing in the 1970s when Hollywood was at its peak and it was making amazing films alongside lots of trash as well, what would’ve been difficult. But now what comes out of Hollywood is so terrible that there’s space for the independent creators to move through and make something new. So I suspect that we have this cycle between the worst players on the field who at some point will come to dominate and then they end up eating themself because their audience has opted out and space emerges for new things to crop up around them. I doubt we can ever end the cycle and just have the good stuff though.
Jim: Anyone who puts out a utopian anything be highly suspicious, it ends up as Pol Pot every time, right? Complexity will tell us that we’ll never get full answers to anything. It’s always an unfolding to the next level. So I think you’re kind of interesting there. Let’s wrap up with one thing I would love to get your thoughts on, as you not doubt could infer from our discussion, I, at least, used to be a very heavy science fiction reader. In fact, that’s what I mostly read. There was a time when I read, I believe, every science fiction book that was published in hard cover and had showed up at our public library. And then later when I had my paper route and a little bit of money, I discovered used bookstores where you could buy copies of analog for a nickel and you could buy pulp science fiction books for a dime, and I would buy them by the stack and read them.
But over time, my reading of science fiction has gone down to maybe one or two or three a year. Most recent one I read that I was quite impressed with, in fact I had them on my podcast quite recently, was Daniel Suarez’s, recent ones, Critical Mass and Delta V. They’re two linked stories about the early days of mankind moving into space, and they were very, very good. In fact, they fit into the category, we unfortunately didn’t have time to dig into this, of what you called a systems novel where he envisions a whole new way that the economy might work and the politics might work and it’s very innovative. But anyway, that aside, Daniel Suarez his two books I really like. What would you recommend as current science fiction that’s of the highest quality? I’m going to put the critic on the spot and have him come up with some of his, what he thinks, are really good that are say within the last 12 months or so.
Damien: Well, I’m not reading a lot of new science fiction.
Jim: Oh, you’re arguing about the old stuff, right?
Damien: I’ve gone back to a lot of old stuff like reading the whole Dune sequence to talk about systems fury novels, which I think that defines systems fury, science fiction, that’s why it’s so influential. I’ll give you one, which I think will appeal to your audience, which is by QNTM, Q-N-T-M, who does have a real name, but he chooses to publish pseudonymously. And the book is called, There is No Antiemetics Division.
Jim: Oh, I read that. It’s pretty whack. It’s way out there stylistically. But it was curious and interesting. I don’t think I finished it actually, that I’ll confess. I’m about a 75% finisher of books that I started, but that was one I did not finish because the style was just too whack.
Damien: Yeah. It has a kind of episodic style that might not be for everybody who reads it, but I think some of the ideas in there are probably ideas that will become quite mainstream in science fiction.
Jim: I love the core concept, actually, the core theme. And then once I got the theme, I said, all right, I’m done. So instead, let’s spend our last five minutes talking about the idea of systems. What did you call them?
Damien: Systems, novels. I think it was quite a long time ago I wrote that.
Jim: Why don’t you lay out that idea and maybe give some examples of why you think it’s an important formalism.
Damien: Well, you have a point in philosophy where a lot of philosophers, I think… I mean I’m definitely an armchair philosopher, so I speak inexpertly here, but I think Hidago was one of these who came to a point in his thinking about philosophy that he really decided it could only really happen through art, that philosophy just kind of went round in these linguistic cycles otherwise. And he wrote a lot of poetry at that point. And I think a lot about actually the embodiment of philosophy in story gives you science fiction. I think you could almost call science fiction philosophy fiction in a way. So in something like Dune, although there’s definitely science and scientific extrapolation in there, I think it’s more about kind of thinking about ecology and the systems, how systems, complex systems of those kinds, are going to shape and evolve over time, how those are tied into human evolution.
Herbert spends a hell of a lot of time just having his characters sitting around thinking about the future of humanity, the kind of arc of the planet, Arrakis becoming the water world, and then going back to the desert world again. And all of these I think are deep philosophical concepts and system thinkers concepts. But I think what happens in terms of putting those in fiction actually takes you a step beyond systems thinking and systems theory because they have to become embodied. Whatever systems you’re thinking of have to be embodied in people and then seen through the eyes of characters and then made into a story that is believable and immersive for the readers, which takes you that leap beyond where systems very soft and struggles with just proliferating systems because you can identify an infinite number of systems in the world for any finite thing you might want to look at.
But the test of the system is how it comes back to the human scale. And if you can place it into a story which then gives you a work of science fiction, I think that is actually an intellectual test for it. Does that make sense, Jim?
Jim: Yeah, it does. One I read last year, which I was pretty taken with was Neil Stevenson’s Termination Shock. Again, it was really good story and some interesting and quirky characters, but it was also a fairly good explication of geoengineering and climate change and coupling between the two. And what could really go badly wrong with climate change? What are some of the risks and some of the benefits of geo-engineering? So it was a mixture of serious thinking about systems and a good fun story.
Damien: I think it’s his trilogy, The Systems of the World trilogy. His first one is Quicksilver, and it’s also related to Cryptonomicon.
Jim: Oh, I hated those. Oh, dear. Did I hate those?
Damien: You hated them?
Jim: Yes. In fact, I refer to them as the broke cycle, B-R-O-K-E. He calls them the Baroque cycle.
Damien: What did you hate about them?
Jim: Everything, particularly the writing style and the fact that the history is all totally and grossly falsified. I happen to know a lot about that era of Boyle and Newton and all that stuff, and it’s like agh. And it’s funny, I’ve read every book he’s written and I’ve enjoyed them all except for those three. It’s one of the very few cases, I think it was the second one, you hear people say they threw a book against the wall. Well, about halfway through I literally took this gigantic tome and they’re all huge and thick, this was in hardcover and I threw it against the wall and it actually put a dent in the sheet rock. So anyway, but I know other people think they’re his best work. So taste is individual.
Damien: I won’t judge them on quality there. I think as systems novels, they’re very interesting. But I email interviewed Neil Stevenson some years ago, and I would send him a question, quite a long question, like a paragraph, half a page of email or something, and I would get any email back from him that was 3000 words long, about seven minutes later in answer to the question. So I think because he’s very prolific, I think Neil Stevenson can write at the speed that he thinks. Since then, when I’ve read his novels, I can tell the sections where he’s writing fiction and he’s a very skilled fiction writer. And then there are other sections where he just switches over into, this is just Neil Stevenson brain dumping onto the page.
Jim: Even in Termination Shock there’s some of that where he goes into a deep dive into explaining something and he does it really well. I mean, he is a very talented wordsmith, and I’ve enjoyed all of his books with that, with the exception of The Broke Cycle. But I know other people think those are their favorites, right. So to each his own. All righty. Well, I think this has been a right interesting conversation with Damien Walter. Thanks for coming on the Jim Rutt Show.
Damien: Thanks for inviting me, Jim.
Jim: Yeah, it was really a lot of fun.