“Burning Giraffes and Telephones.” Salvador Dali

Sc-Fi, Magic, Boomers, and Jung.

Why fantasy is exactly what we need.

To give some context to how this article arose, a friend just texted “tell me one thing: why do you like the idea of magic in your stories?”

As I was responding to him Norman Spinrad’s opinion piece from Asimov was floating around in my head. With it was a deep-seated discomfort I’ve had brewing for years, the difference between gods and aliens.

The thoughts that erupted took on a Jungian form, an archetypal rebellion against fixed states, status quos, and the conservation of power.

We’re living in a sci-fi world and we’re suffering.

The unsatisfied yearning of the artist reaches back to the primordial image in the unconscious which is best fitted to compensate the inadequacy and one-sidedness of the present.

— Carl Jung, CW 15, Para 130.

I understand that at some point sci-fi was inspiring. It opened doors to new futures, could warn us of the dangers to come, and showed us beauty and wonder right around the corner.

But that was an earlier generation, the Boomer’s generation. The children of those who won the war abroad only to lose the ideological war between corporations and democratic government.

This was the generation that went from good citizens and neighbors to good consumers, sold on the promises of the future, technology, and modern conveniences.

Today we’re 35 years past Orwell’s 1984 and while the government doesn’t directly rule our lives it’s listening in right alongside Google, Facebook, and Apple.

In the culture of corporate behemoths and shifts in technology, we find ourselves facing the same existential threat as Benard Max and John.

There are those that should fit in with this consumerist society, eating away at the world’s environments and people’s lives, chasing chemical illusions of satisfaction — but we don’t.

Those of us born outside of the status quo face a society that is based on our exploitation, we know the tension between the struggle to survive and the promise of release in suicide.

We are living a sci-fi novel, connected to each other from thousands of miles away, able to order anything we want but feeling hollow, popping a range of anti-depressants as we stare at the opium screen.

Or maybe we’re born beneath the feet of empire, struggling to survive while someone else’s hour goes ten times further than our day of sweat.

Science and the dream of sci-fi have not delivered a utopia, rather they have brought us a whimpering dystopia. Nothing harsh enough to stir the blood and cause a revolution, nothing soulful enough to spark a hero’s want to thrive.

Why do you like the idea of magic in your stories?

“You don’t enslave us. Physics does.”

— Valerie. “Echopraxia” by Peter Watts.

Magic to me is the invocation of the will beyond the confines of the fixed and rational. Sci-Fi is fun (and sometimes brilliant) but it will always have to follow a rule, a basic principle of physics.

According to Spinrad’s Cambell’s rule was that sci-fi would not “violate the known rules of mass and energy.”

As Peter Watt’s vampire illustrates in “Echopraxia,” when we account for neurological structures and chemical reactions, for behavioral conditioning and the way people make choices, a strict following of physical laws makes for a deterministic world view.

Good modern sci-fi explores this as Watts does while other authors such as Hannu Rajaniemi show us our fantasies with a technological twist.

The key to these models of sci-fi is the assumption that underneath it all is a valid explanation. With that explanation comes a fixed limitation, one that seems closer and closer to imposing the exact reality we are experiencing today. After all, when you understand the entirety social, political, behavioral and neurological conditioning, how can the world be any different than what it is?

The more we understand of the world the smaller and less animated we become. Yes, science has brought about a brilliant assortment of treatments, tools, and technical marvels but it has also shown the limits of our human nature in a way that is finalized so much more by a textbook than the holy scripters of yesterday.

Magic and fantasy, however, open the door to mystery. They are beyond what can be fully comprehended and yet are predicated on the fact that we interact with them.

Magic and fantasy are a part of us. Thus the Mystery and everything beyond our ability to understand and define are intimately connected to us.

Sci-fi posits that at some point we and the system we live in can be fully explained. Magic promises us that there will always be a part of self and verse held in sacred mystery.

For those of us experiencing the pressure beneath the systems of the world, this mystery opens a door of possibility beyond the limitations of what we know.

Spinrad’s “sci-fi;” a white man’s fantasy.

“The artist seizes on this image, and in raising it from deepest unconsciousness he brings it into relation with conscious values, thereby transforming it until it can be accepted by the minds of his contemporaries according to their powers.”

— Carl Jung, CW 15, Para 130

It’s ironic how much Spinrad’s piece illustrates the need to change for which the market is compensating by attacking that compensation.

In his attempt to present himself as a torchbearer for true sci-fi he doubles down on what he labels as sci-fi’s founders, white men obsessed with tech and sex.

In so doing he skips over other famous sci-fi authors from Kurt Vonnegut to Philip K. Dick because their sci-fi doesn’t fit the narrative he’s trying to accrue his source of authority from.

(His article focuses on Asimov, Heinlein, and Campell, emphasizing his relationship to them as someone connected and in the know at the time.)

To date himself as part of the problematic status quo he chooses two misogynists to idolize while failing to mention any women such as Ursula K. LeGuin or Mary Shelley in their contribution to science fiction.

Instead, he reaches back to H.G. Wells and Jules Vern, both born after Frankenstein was published while doubling down on Asimov and Heinlein being the fathers of sci-fi.

Personally, I find these two to be bores. What I’ve read of their works was slow and dated. Heinlein’s “Stranger in a Strange Land” was horribly misogynistic and homophobic.

To top it off, neither of them stuck to a rigid telling of hard sci-fi.

Michael Valentine is more of a supernatural figure than a scientifically sound concept, being linked back to archangel Michael by the end of the book.

Asimov went from criticizing Star Trek as not representing sci-fi due to its fantasy concepts to consulting for it after Roddenberry convinced him it could bring Asimov more money.

Spinrad himself wrote, “The Doomsday Machine” for Star Trek.

Now I don’t know enough about Campbell to comment about him, truth is I don’t know enough about Spinrad. A google search outlining some of his literary themes has me interested in learning more.

That said I know a bit about China and would like to point out the absurdity of Spinrad’s analogy and the way it captures the psychology that younger generations are rebelling from.

The white man’s blind obsession with progress.

“The Satan-Prometheus parallel shows clearly enough that Milton’s devil stands for the essence of human individuation and thus comes within the scope of
psychology… With the coming of the Enlightenment, metaphysics as a whole began to decline, and the rift which then opened out between knowledge and faith could no longer be repaired.”

— Carl Jung, Psychology and Religion.

In Spinrad’s collum, he points to 15th century China, by European standards, an empire at the top of its form. Spinrad then goes on to say that China blew their fate by not expanding onward.

And so China blew it.

And has perhaps only begun to recover from its lost centuries of looking backward.

There, but for fortune, go you and I?

Or maybe not.

The future you get is the future you make.

In reality, China made the cultural decision to maintain and cultivate themselves rather than expand and cause the chaos and tension that often comes with this.

This was informed by their spiritual beliefs and cultural observations but is also a solid philosophy when looking at physics.

One of my favorite lectures compared imperialization with thermodynamic models. To create higher levels of complexity (endothermic reactions/empires) requires more and more energy and results in greater levels of exothermic reactions and entropy.

The British empire inspired by the “Enlightenment” eventually challenged China by getting Chinese citizens addicted to opium and then launching a war to force said sales of opium.

They built their military power on the conquering and subjugation of other peoples and the industrialization of their own homeland. During this time their own poor (men, women, and children) were being crushed, starved, and worked to death in factories while the levels of pollution were so intense the wildlife of England began to change color due to evolutionary pressures.

Just over a hundred years later, when facing the threat of a genocidal Japan, China rallied behind a Western-educated communist who took Western ideals to their extreme and massacred millions.

Decades later the communist party has increased the economy of China at the expense of the environment.

I’ve been to Shangai, locals walked me around to show off the city they’ve built in the last two decades. You can barely see it beyond the smog. The tops of the skyscrapers, the ends of the streets, the rest of the city they are so proud of are hidden by pollution.

Life expectancy in China has dropped by three years due to air pollution. That is Spinrad’s “recovery.”

Possession by the Uberman, the chaining of Prometheus.

The more resplendent figures in the metaphysical pantheon had their autonomy restored to them practically untarnished, which assuredly cannot be said of the devil. In Goethe’s Faust he has dwindled to a very personal familiaris, the mere “shadow” of the struggling hero.

— Carl Jung, Psychology and Religion.

I want to dive in here with Jung’s explanation of archetypal possession.

It is a psychological rule that when an archetype has lost its metaphysical hypostasis, it becomes identified with the conscious mind of the individual, which it influences and refashions in its own form. And since an archetype always possesses a certain numinosity, the integration of the numen generally produces an inflation of the subject. It is therefore entirely in accord with psychological expectations that Goethe should dub his Faust a Superman. In recent times this type has extended beyond Nietzsche into the field of political psychology, and its incarnation in man has had all the consequences that might have been expected to follow from such a misappropriation of power.

To clarify Jung has joined the image of Prometheus to that of Lucifer, both symbolic figures often representative of the Enlightenment Era and its promise to unshackle humanity from the “superstitions” of bygone eras.

Jung in the quotes above is tracing an argument that he finalizes in “Answer to Job,” mainly that God or the unconscious plays host to judge, oppressor, the status quo, and rebel; everything we hold to be good and everything we say is evil.

His theories on the unconscious argue that at different points of history we identify with different aspects of the unconscious or archetypes. In this way the psyche shifts between generations compensating for what was found lacking in the generations that came before.

In the Enlightenment Era the rebels rebelled from superstition, sneering at “backward” cultures such as China who decided to live life by another set of standards that wasn’t concerned with technology or Europe’s obsession with “progress.”

Today I look at those European rebels and see Prometheus still bound, their actions leading to a world they had no ability to foresee, the consequences of their technology and philosophies poisoning the rivers, the air we breathe, dropping nuclear bombs on Hiroshima, fire on Dresden, creating the mass organization required for heinous crimes such as the Holocaust or the mass propaganda that perpetuates false wars and systemic oppression to this day.

On my trip to China, I was overwhelmed with a sense of loss, all that was destroyed in the cultural revolution. Much of the Daoist ethic taught the importance of maintaining a relationship with nature rather than dominating it.

Whether Spinrad is cognitive of it or not his desire for a sci-fi of technological progress is rooted in the Enlightenment Era, it is the aged rebel spirit, an archetype fascinated with science and all that it promises, scorning fantasy, magic, and “superstition.”

It is in love with “progress,” high on the promise of technology and the human spirit, its replacement to the gods and magic of old.

The shadow of this zeitgeist delivered the world we see today. The suffering of nations recovering from being brutally imperialized. The decay of social structures in cultures that were labeled as “savages.” The death of traditions that sustained people for millennia while science and technology have failed to deliver their promise of a considerably better world.

On average we spend more time working than a medieval peasant. Our ability to communicate and market ourselves is constantly evolving while cultural cohesion and interpersonal relationships suffer. Mass production hasn’t led to mass satisfaction but rather pollution and debt while our mastery of chemicals has failed to create a joyful soul.

Even worse, science explains all of this but can’t address the roots of the problem.

Neurology has shown that the human brain isn’t the rational, truth-finding, infophile the white men of the enlightenment thought themselves to be. It’s a collection of systems with fluctuating utility, easily conditioned and programmed, still steeped in its evolutionary history, scared, tribal, and oh so prone to fantasizing the world into being what it wants it to be.

For Spinrad this has colored history to such an extent that he links cultural developments in science fiction to the fate of millions of Chinese; dramatizing their history into a narrative of failure, “looking backward” as he too looks back to sci-fi’s “glory days.”

Fuck the limitations of the programmed brain box.

The unsatisfied yearning of the artist reaches back to the primordial image in the unconscious which is best fitted to compensate the inadequacy and one-sidedness of the present.

— Carl Jung, CW 15, Para 130.

Samuel R. Delaney captures the frustration of limitations best in “The Star Pit,” (published in Aye and Gomorrah) as he explores the frustrations of generations and their interactions with the fringes of the unknown.

It’s my favorite sci-fi story and it speaks to this current dilemma. Spinrad's generation wanted to break through the limitation of what they thought was possible, demonstrating the strength of the human spirit by pitting us against the limitations of the universe itself.

The mysteries of the brain, the belief in human virtue, the lackadaisical assumption that we are rational, free-willed agents made space and room for change and adventure in a system of physical laws and restrictions.

However, the more we understand about the mystery of the brain, the more tragedies we witness and imagine, the more we’ve come to doubt our freedom of will and the purity of the human spirit.

The dreams and archetypes of Spinrad’s day have aged. Our psyche is cynical. Writers like Watts demonstrate that hard sci-fi still works but it does so by questioning ourselves all the more. Challenging the last vestiges of our human mystery as we gaze upon ourselves in horror.

Writing this I can feel the archetypal rebel of the present rising up with a big “fuck you boomer.”

The systems of my brain, used to their narratives, to a cynical analysis of power and systemic structure see another white man ignoring the histories of minorities as he waxes poetic to the very ideas that have led to their suffering.

But fuck that brain box.

I don’t know much about him but a little digging says that back in his day he fought hard against publishers to ensure that his books remain intact with the messages he believed.

He saw the systems he was able to see and wanted to shift them from a political position of anarchy.

Our brains like our stories, they like simplifications, they like demons. The reality of the situation is that the world and our experiences condition us, shape our expectations, our ability to understand the information that comes to us.

He’s not a demon, he’s just lived his life and the psychological impulses that once drove him to rebel are too aged to recognize the rebellion of the here and now.

The world is too shitty for us to hold blind faith in the purity of the human spirit and the optimism of the enlightenment. We’ve seen how corporations have taken the dream of the World Fair’s (Futurama) and turned it into a consumerist dystopia.

Our current generation isn’t concerned with the limitations of space and physics but rather our human nature and what it will take to change and survive. We are desperate to find a way to turn this world around while the data points stack up to tell us it’s too late.

Our current limitation is hard reality and the determinism of the world we live in. It’s the lack of spirit and soul, the enlivening properties forcefully extinguished with the forgetting of our ancestry and our cultural practices.

It’s the sort of soul-filling remedy found in Nisi Shawl’s “Good Boy.” (Published in Filter House and New Suns.)

Yes, we can build colonies on foreign worlds, figure out how to navigate them and send our messages out amongst the stars but what good is that if we’ve our meaning? If we can’t find how to cure the soul? To put a smile on our face or remember how to dance?

We need magic and fantasy in order to break through the boxes of the previous generation, the limitations of structure and power dynamics that when perpetuated have created the present-day reality.

It’s why fiction from women, people of color, and the LGBTQ community is so powerful. We need new visions from outside the status quo to give life to the world of our limitations.

Magic is alive.

The ancients devised magic to compel fate. They needed it to determine outer fate. We need it to determine inner fate and to find the way that we are unable to conceive.

— Carl Jung, The Red Book, Page 311.

The thing is, magic is alive and happening all around us. People the world over are looking back to their cultural traditions, rituals, and fairy tales. They’re finding strength in old and new stories to awaken to new identities, new concepts of how life can be lived and what a good life is.

Those rituals, beliefs, and narratives impact our lives. They’ve helped me stabilize my bipolar in a way science and medication never could. They help people make sense of their differing identities, to feel grounded in life’s most traumatizing trials, to overcome a host of experiences such as addiction or the sapping of will that comes with illness.

We want to tell our stories because we know these stories show a way out of our current limitation, reflecting the mystery we can’t quite explain but know is out there. The mystery that makes room for us to learn, live, and grow.

It’s ironic that Spinrad has spent so much of his life fighting hard to break the mold only to put his own opinioned box on things as he relives his glory days.

A fantasy that doesn’t speak to us anymore, filled with people we don’t respect, devoid of the voices we love and know existed but can’t be heard by his particular neurology.

I hope Spinrad has magic in his life. Something that can open the box and shift around the narrative; reveal something new.

At the end of the day, he and I are a lot alike judging authors severally, charging at our projected foes as the rebels inside scream their war cry. He thinks he knows best about what we need based on when he needed it.

I believe that what we need changes and that the artists of our time will be moved to write in a way that opens new doors of possibility. Doors beyond the realm of the physical, doors that lead to mystery and the soul.

That’s what I want to read and write. That’s what I choose.

Transformation coach specializing in mental health, spirituality & relationships — the ways we connect to self, society & cosmos. www.linktr.ee/JoshuaBurkhart

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