I just read Oscar Wilde’s The Soul of Man Under Socialism, mostly because The Whelk has been talking about it for ages. It’s a fascinating document, because it’s so far out of its time. For 1891 it was more or less an absurdity. For 2018 it’s a practical program.

Wilde shows no interest in the actual socialism of his day; he has no enthusiasm for collective farms or factories, or indeed for any work at all. His view is that property has caused the majority of humans to lead miserable lives, and without it they will not be forced to do so.

[T]here are a great many people who, having no private property of their own, and being always on the brink of sheer starvation, are compelled to do the work of beasts of burden, to do work that is quite uncongenial to them, and to which they are forced by the peremptory, unreasonable, degrading Tyranny of want. These are the poor, and amongst them there is no grace of manner, or charm of speech, or civilisation, or culture, or refinement in pleasures, or joy of life.

As George Orwell points out in an insightful review, Wilde was making the assumption that “the world is immensely rich and is suffering chiefly from maldistribution.” This view was often unreflectively held by socialists, but when they took over they found it wasn’t so: instead, they had a huge mass of peasants and urban poor to feed, and the gewgaws found in the tsar’s palace were of no help. Wilde foresaw and deplored their solution:

It is clear, then, that no Authoritarian Socialism will do. For while under the present system a very large number of people can lead lives of a certain amount of freedom and expression and happiness, under an industrial-barrack system, or a system of economic tyranny, nobody would be able to have any such freedom at all. It is to be regretted that a portion of our community should be practically in slavery, but to propose to solve the problem by enslaving the entire community is childish. Every man must be left quite free to choose his own work. No form of compulsion must be exercised over him.

With the soul of a contrarian, Wilde looked at the cooperative ethos of socialism and found it the seedbed of Individualism. Freed of economic want, people will do as they want— creating things, mostly. He grows lyrical:

It will be a marvellous thing – the true personality of man – when we see it. It will grow naturally and simply, flowerlike, or as a tree grows. It will not be at discord. It will never argue or dispute. …Its value will not be measured by material things. It will have nothing. And yet it will have everything, and whatever one takes from it, it will still have, so rich will it be. It will not be always meddling with others, or asking them to be like itself. It will love them because they will be different. And yet while it will not meddle with others, it will help all, as a beautiful thing helps us, by being what it is.

But what about all those factories and fields, who will maintain them? No problem, says Wilde: machines will do it. In the conditions of his time, a machine might do the work of 500 men, and 499 would be thrown out of work, while one man, the owner of the machine, profited. If machines were public property, the work is still saved, but the prosperity goes to everyone.

All unintellectual labour, all monotonous, dull labour, all labour that deals with dreadful things, and involves unpleasant conditions, must be done by machinery. Machinery must work for us in coal mines, and do all sanitary services, and be the stoker of steamers, and clean the streets, and run messages on wet days, and do anything that is tedious or distressing. At present machinery competes against man. Under proper conditions machinery will serve man. 

Orwell notes drily that this was not possible in Wilde’s time nor in his own time, sixty years later. “Wilde’s version of Socialism could only be realised in a world not only far richer but also technically more advanced than the present one.”

Wilde knew that he was being Utopian; but “a map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at.” Well, you don’t get anywhere if you have no goals.

Wilde couldn’t offer much besides hope in 1891. But let’s play with some numbers, 127 years later. The GNP of the US is $20.7 trillion; the number of households is 126 million. That’s an average per household income of $164,000. The actual median household income is $59,000.  So complete redistribution would be a vast improvement for literally 90% of the population. (To be in the top 10%, you have to have a household income of about $133,000.)

(Household income seems like a more realistic gauge of prosperity than individual income. If (say) you were designing a UBI, I hope you’d think twice about an individual allocation— that would just make large families the new wealthy, and single people the new poor.)

At a world level, things are not so bouncy. Distribute the world’s wealth and we don’t all get to live like rich Americans. But again, things are far better than they were in Wilde’s or Orwell’s time. The average level is no longer “starving peasant”, but something like “reasonably comfortable urban dweller”.

This doesn’t mean that we’re getting there tomorrow. (This will be a relief to some of you and a disappointment to others.) But it does mean that the socialist alternative can no longer be dismissed, as Churchill once said, as “the equal sharing of miseries.” Today, the socialist alternative is not bad, and it gets better as the machines do.

To put it bluntly, that $100,000 difference between median and average household income is the tax we pay to have plutocracy.  Whatever you think are the benefits to having plutocracy rather than socialism— are they worth that much?

There are positions in the middle, of course! We actually had a system, in the real world, that raised the income of all classes and that limited inequality— liberalism. It’s not quite fair to directly compare Wilde’s ideal with any existing system; ideals are unbounded and putting idealists in charge doesn’t mean you get the ideal state. And a fair question to ask any socialist who’s read Wilde is, did you read the parts about how authoritarian socialism doesn’t get you to that ideal at all?

Anyway, it’s a bit moot right now because it turns out the reactionaries aren’t as dead as people hoped. I could go on and on about this, but I’ll just note that though reactionaries can notch up victories, as they win they also lose. Their whole program has been to reverse the gains of liberalism; what they’ve forgotten is that perhaps the fastest path to revolution or national ruin is when reactionaries are put in charge.

If you read Wilde’s essay, you’ll probably be struck by how much isn’t about socialism, or about politics, at all. He spends long paragraphs talking about Jesus, about Louis XIV, about the novel, about the newspapers’ war on modern art. His view of art is probably the most old-fashioned part of the article: the artist is a sort of high-minded explorer who cannot be answerable to press or public. And that’s about the only role he can find for any human in his utopia. I think his imagination flags here; absent economic necessity, any number of other pursuits might thrive, to say nothing of popular art that a Wilde wouldn’t bother with.

(A final word for the people who have already tuned out and are writing their own rants about how you can’t just divide up GNP like that… as I said, it’s not happening tomorrow, and deep analyses on why are not needed. But as an ideal and a critique of plutocracy, it’s more relevant now than it was in 1891. If the alternative is “continue as things are going in 2018”, we can’t do that either; if it doesn’t end in war or revolution, then it ends in catastrophic climate change. Better start thinking about what the world should look like in 2100.)

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Latest changes over at zompist.com:

Sadly, the page on where to score French comics has been removed, because I don’t know any more. The info was about 15 years out of date and I’m not able to buy them anyway.

Well, I’m in a new galaxy, named Eissentam.  It’s apparently Galaxy No. 10 of 256.  I don’t expect I’ll visit them all. Spoilers ahead if you worry about that.

nms feeding

The questline of Conan Exiles– if you can find it– is that you build the MacGuffin, use it, get a tiny dumb cutscene, and start over in a new game. Well, No Man’s Sky does pretty much the same thing. You finish the Artemis questline, you get some alone time with Atlas, and your reward is to start over in a new galaxy.  (You do keep your inventory and ship. And it turns out you can summon your freighter and get the contents of your old storage units; but you don’t keep your base.)

The questline is great as a means of keeping you busy: there’s a ton of stuff to do, and it walks you through building and populating your base.  As a story, it’s basically incoherent nonsense. Making a game that simulates an entire galaxy, the devs decided to go meta: whoa man what if the game is about simulating an entire galaxy and you’re like an AI?  I think this is a trope which more or less never works.  About all that can be said for it is that at least it explains why the NMS galaxies don’t obey our laws of physics. (I do like the idea of the early part of the quest– you try to connect to other Travelers– but there’s no payoff to this part.)

An immense amount of effort has gone into NMS; still, after 76 hours, the seams are showing. The animals and plants are built off a limited number of models: your basic dinosaur, your basic bouncy thing, your basic bird, your basic jellyfish, and so on. I’m not bored yet, but I’m not expecting my enthusiasm to last through an actual trip to the galactic center.

There’s little bits that work really well.  E.g., you can feed the animals, they crowd around you, and then they poop coprite.  That’s what’s happening in the pic above– it’s part of a new set of weekly quests for Nada and Polo. It sounds dumb, but it’s actually rather charming, one of the few moments you feel like you’re interacting with the world.

The vistas of new worlds are also nice.  There are some worlds that look like the ruins of world-spanning cities, which are pretty eerie:

nms ruins

If this sounds mixed, well, that’s how it is. I think it works well as a survival game with an unusually broad canvas for exploration.  The base building is too punishing… seriously, dudes, 350 pieces of pure ferrite (not even a basic material) to build one fricking room?  The story is dumb; on the other hand, the mini-stories you get by taking side missions or talking to random aliens can be fun. There’s always something to do; also always something to complain of.

(OK, one more complaint: the language stuff is still pointless. I know over 400 words now; that’s just enough to point out how utterly unlike language learning the process is. E.g. for a long time the Geks would greet me with “Ammr friend!”  It seemed obvious that ammr was hello, and lo and behold, that’s exactly what it is. To make this process, you know, slightly more like a game, why not let me guess at words? Or let me ask for a particular word rather than a random word?  Who learns ‘isotopes’ before ‘is’?)

Edit: OK, one more bit of praise and complaint. The kind of nice bit: fixing frigates. The frigates can go out exploring, but the crew is incapable of doing minor repairs. OK, the justification is dumb, but the mechanics are cute: you clamber around the frigate to make the repairs.

The complaint: freighter missions are tedious. You send your frigates on missions, and hopefully they come back with some stuff. OK, but you have to go out to your freighter to start and stop the mission and maybe mess with inventories. And sometimes go fix the frigates. Why can’t you just make a phone call? (I suppose because then there’d be no reason for the freighters to have insides. It’s of a piece with the general problem of NMS: every area is super-pretty, and never feels alive.)

Did I complain about the base building?  Yes, I did, but I can always complain more. I finally learned how to make rooms of any size, using the cube modules. Nice idea, but each cube takes 200 pure ferrite, which is insane. The devs should play Empyrion to learn how to make base building actually fun.

I think I’ve written a book. Now we must see whether this is so. As was foretold in the prophecies, this is where I ask for readers.

elvisleft

Contact me if you’re interested and have the time over the next few weeks— markrose at zompist dot com. I usually get more offers than I can handle, so get your offer in fast. 🙂

If you’ve only read the LCK, that’s fine; if you’re a Herr Professor Doktor of linguistics, that’s also fine.

They are still making Star Wars movies, did you know?  This one is called The Last Jedi. I talked about the previous film here.

EP8-135323_R

Giving Luke a piece of her mind, and boy does he need it

Overall: this was great. It’s the first movie since the first that shakes things up and tries new things. Plus, I think it has the lowest cheese ratio of all the movies.  If you think the original movies weren’t cheesy, you’ve just forgotten.  Joel and the bots would have a field day with all of them. Last Jedi is still an adventure movie, of course, not Truffaut. But it takes itself seriously, tells multiple stories comprehensibly, never relies on people being idiots, and has some great action sequences.

Let me make it clear right away that I love the fact that Star Wars is finally foregrounding women, black folks, and Asians. It is, after all, a saga about fighting space Nazis. It ought to offend alt-righters.

The movie actually has a couple of themes, which is two more than an action movie generally needs or gets. One them is failure. Like The Empire Strikes Back, this is the middle picture of a trilogy, and has to get Our Heroes into deeper trouble. Which means it has to have heroic acts but ultimately end in failure. But all the failures are part of character arcs, and none are quite as Chaotic Stupid as trusting Lando in ESB.

The other is how to handle legends. This is kind of metatextual, but that doesn’t make it any less a valid lesson. The biggest mistake of all, it turns out, is treating Luke as a savior figure.

It’s disconcerting, of course, that Luke doesn’t want to be a hero any more. But, well, this is a far more mature and interesting approach than having him be the new Yoda and happily teaching Rey. Plus, you know, the movie explains its point pretty well: Luke feels he fucked up with Kylo Ren.  And he did. Once again, Mr. #2 Sith Lord is a failed Jedi. It may be extreme to decide to can the whole Jedi/Sith thing, but you can see why he thinks that way.  And he does get to have his time of redemption at the end.

Edit: Someone on Mefi had a great observation: if you think Luke is insufficiently heroic in Last Jedi, your real problem is with The Force Awakens, which sets it up: already Luke was absent from the fight, in exile. But people didn’t think through at the time what that meant.

The Rey/Kylo scenes are where the film takes its biggest risk. There’s a moment in ESB where Vader tempts Luke, but we don’t believe it for a second. Lucas could not think of anything Vader could offer that was worth listening to; the Dark Side was just Eeevil. Kylo is sometimes… well, often… a stereotypical out-of-control teenager with anger issues. But it’s a stereotype that exists for a reason, and it makes him more human and more interesting than Lord Eeevil.

In some ways Rey falls a little too easily for Kylo. But again, it is absolutely a thing that well-meaning girls fall for edgy boys; it’s far more understandable than Lucas’s attempt to explain Vader. Plus, the idea that the near-personifications of the Dark Side and Light Side of the Force are fascinated with each other is smart. It’s not so much that opposites attract, but that certain opponents care about the same things, and they share experiences that mundane people don’t. (At least one comic, Jay Stephens’s Atomic City Tales, makes use of this: the superhero protagonist starts dating one of the supervillains. You can see that they’d have a lot in common, if they avoid a few topics.)

Plus, all this leads to perhaps the best scene in the movie– the confrontation in Snoke’s throne room. The plot tension is high: we absolutely saw Kylo’s murderousness in the first movie. His turning on Snoke is both surprising and satisfying. It addresses a problem ESB set up but didn’t answer: why didn’t Vader do the same thing? It seems Sith Lords are uniformly terrible managers, and #2 murdering #1 comes with the territory.

Kylo’s little speech about getting past the whole Jedi/Sith thing echoes Luke. It’s not so clear what he thinks he’s doing, but at least that feels like a question we can ask. Vader’s goals (“get another gold star on this year’s annual review”?) were unfathomable.

Plus, of course, that fight scene is fantastic.  Who knew that what Star Wars needed was more red?

The whole Finn + Rose story is fun, not least because what the series is best at is building new heroes, and Finn needs a lot of building. Rose is certainly the most adorable Resistance hero, but she has a core of steel, which turns out to be just the role model Finn needs. It’s odd, but fun, that we get a little heist story in the middle of the galactic epic, and it has another fantastic set piece– the escape on the huge, um, animals.  Not going to Wookiepedia to see what they’re called; I might never get out.

This sequence contains a single line– Rose explaining that the rich people at the casino mostly got their money selling arms to the First Order– that does more work on worldbuilding and analyzing power structures than the entirely of Eps 1-3. And this is later deepened by DJ’s casual demonstration that they sold arms to the Resistance as well. All this is again more sophisticated and nuanced than Star Wars usually gets.

The one thing that the new trilogy has failed to explain is where Snoke came from. Probably some movie will be made to explain that, but maybe it’s just as well if we don’t ever know. We can fill in the details from current events, after all.

Action movies often suffer from “fridge logic”… things you don’t question while watching, but which don’t make sense when it’s over and you head to the fridge. The biggest bits here would be:

  • Why didn’t they pull that lightspeed maneuver earlier, when they could have saved hundreds of people?
  • Why didn’t Holdo have any answer for Poe?  Even “it’s secret” would probably have shot him down.

Some things seem like they might fall under this category, but I’d argue that they’re just bad luck, or the characters’ mistakes. E.g. the whole heist sequence ends up failing. That doesn’t mean it was a bad idea (though the complexity of the plan was certainly a strike against it). It was far better planned than, say, the assault on the New Death Star in #6.

Similarly, Poe’s attack on the dreadnoughts at the beginning was risky, but it wasn’t simply idiotic.  They had to show what a Pyrrhic victory was.   Besides, the real idiot was whoever designed the bombers to be that slow.

The biggest surprise is that the Resistance comes so low in this movie. It didn’t seem like the First Order was that close to total victory in the previous film. But, everyone’s character arcs have clicked into place, and there’s nowhere to go but up.

I’ve seen complaints that the movie is too long. I don’t think so, but the timing does get wonky toward the end. There’s a moment of catharsis with Holdo’s maneuver and the big fight scenes on the ship, and then it seems we have another half an hour to go. My notes at this point say “We need a denouement.” But things pick up again, and there’s another nice bit with Luke’s final fight.

One more thought– read Tom & Lorenzo’s piece on Rey’s outfits. Quite interesting, and a demonstration that a lot of thought and thematic savvy goes into things that most watchers won’t even notice.

I just finished Language acquisition and conceptual development, edited by Melissa Bowerman and Stephen Levinson (2001), and I want to write down what I learned while it’s still fresh in my mind.

You may recall the book report on Everett & Jackendoff and their feud over innatism. The issue there is Chomsky’s longstanding contention that language learning is far too hard for children, therefore they must have a head start: grammar and vocabulary are already hard-wired into their brains. All they have to do is figure out which of a small series of switches to flip to get the grammar (“oh! verbs go last here!”) and work out that dog means Inbuilt concept #293291.

This book is a report from the trenches of language acquisition; if anyone knows how it goes, these people do. I note, by the way, that this is one of the few fields dominated by women: 20 of the 30 authors of these papers are female. Yay for linguistics!

There is no knockout punch— unsurprisingly, there’s a lot we don’t know about how children learn languages. And this book, at least, doesn’t have too much to say about how children learn syntax, much less whether they do so using Minimalism, Arc Pair Grammar, Role & Reference Grammar, etc. It’s mostly about the first three years, the first words learned, and what that tells us about children’s conceptual system.

The biggest news seems to be:

  • Children understand things far earlier than was once supposed. E.g. Piaget thought that children didn’t acquire the notion of object permanence till 3 years or so; we now know they have it at 5 months. He also thought that children didn’t understand the concept of time till about 8; but in fact they are clearly able to remember and refer to past events, and anticipate and refer to future events, at not much more than 1 year of age.
  • At the same time: universal, basic concepts are more elusive than ever. Languages really do divide up conceptual space differently, and this is evident in children’s speech from the beginning.

The object permanence result is due to better, cleverer technique: rather than relying on the baby’s actions, we only check what they’re looking at. Basically: babies can be surprised, and look longer at unexpected outcomes. So you show them a doll being placed behind a screen, then remove the screen. They’re surprised if they see no doll there, or two dolls.

Many of the authors refer to Quine’s problem. Quine envisioned a linguist eliciting words from a native. A rabbit goes by, and the native says gavagai. Does this mean “rabbit”, or “hop”, or “fluffy tail”, or “unspecified set of rabbit parts”?

Now, the linguists can’t bring themselves to say that Quine is just being a jerk. But there’s a pretty clear answer to this problem: we aren’t tabulae rasae; we’re animals with a hundred-million-year evolutionary history of perceiving objects, especially moving objects, and double especially animals. Some things are very salient for humans— we’re built to see rabbits as objects with a characteristic shape, size, and activity pattern. We’re not built to focus on rabbit tails or miscellaneous rabbit parts.

Early proposals were that children use some all-purpose generalizations: words are likely to refer to the most salient entities; words are normally not synonymous.

Going beyond this, there were assumptions that children would learn nouns before verbs, closed-class form words before content words, shape before materials, and that they would probably learn universal concepts first. This little list of assumptions turns out to be wrong: it depends on the language.

  • Many languages are far more verb-oriented than English. Kids still learn a lot of nouns, but sometimes the proportion of verbs is far higher.
  • Often very specific verbs are learned before abstract spatial words.
  • English children learn to pay the most attention to shape; Maya kids pay the most attention to material.

As for universal concepts, it’s worth looking in detail at an example provided by Levinson. The language is Tzeltal.

Pach-an-a bojch ta y-anil te karton-e.
bowl-put-cause.imp gourd at its-down cardboard-that

The intended translation is “Put the bowl behind the box.” But just about every detail in Tzeltal is different.

  • The shape and spatial information is largely encoded in the verb, not in nouns. Pach– means “place a bowl-shaped vessel upright on a surface.”
  • Corollary: the two NPs refer mostly to material. Bojch is really a word for a gourd; karton can refer to anything made of cardboard.
  • “Behind” is a relative term, which doesn’t exist in Tzeltal. Instead, an absolute frame of reference is used. “Downward” can refer to absolute height, but here it refers to horizontal location, because of a geographical particularity: Tzeltal territory is on a slope, so “downhill” also means “northward”.

Do children really master this system? Of course; they have a pretty good grasp of the slope system by age three. They also master a wide range of very specific verb forms rather than relying heavily, as English-speaking toddlers do, on “up/down”.

Another neat example: English toddlers quickly learn to distinguish “put ON” from “put IN”. Korean children divide up this semantic space quite differently, using at least seven verbs.

  • kkita means “fasten tightly”– this includes putting the top on a pen, placing Lego bricks together, putting a piece in a puzzle, placing a cassette in its box, or buttoning a button.
  • nehta means “place loosely”– e.g. put a book in a bag, or a toy in a box.
  • pwuchita is used for juxtaposing surfaces– e.g. placing a magnet on the fridge.
  • nohta is used for placing things on a horizontal surface.
  • for clothes, you have ssuta for hats, ipta for the body, sinta for the feet.

All this is fascinating because philosophers and linguists are apt to take English categories and assume they are universal concepts: UP, DOWN, IN, ON. Nope, they’re just projecting English words onto Mentalese. There is no stage where children use “universal” concepts before using language-specific ones. (Indeed, there’s evidence that children understand the language-specific concepts well before they can say the words.)

Does all this “affect how you think”? Of course. Levinson tells an amusing anecdote: he almost got his truck stuck in quicksand when his Australian Aborigine companion told him to “swerve north quick”. Levinson just couldn’t calculate where north was fast enough.

There’s also interesting tidbits like, did you know that there is a gradient between comitative and instrumental? It goes like this:

1 – give a show with a clown
2 – build a machine with an assistant
3 – captured the hill with his squad
4 – performed an act with an elephant
5 – the blind man crossed the street with his dog
6 – the officer caught the smuggler with a police dog
7 – won the appeal with a highly paid lawyer
8 – found the solution with a computer
9 – hunted deer with a rifle
10 – broke the window with a stone

In English, as you can see, we use “with” for all of these. In a multitude of languages, these meanings are divided up linearly. E.g.

  • Iraqi Arabic: 1-8 vs 9-10
  • Swahili: 1-6 vs 7-10
  • Slovak: 1-9 vs 10
  • Tamil: 1-2 vs 3-10

That’s pretty neat!

Anyway: there’s still a lot of argument on how exactly children learn, whether they start with particular cognitive abilities, whether they have particular linguistic abilities. Many authors point out that innatism doesn’t really help reduce the problem. E.g. to see if dog matches Inbuilt concept #293291, you pretty much have to have a sense of what a dog is. If you have that, what good is the inbuilt concept?

You could try to save innatism by multiplying the number of inbuilt concepts. E.g. you include the 10 steps of the comitative/instrumental gradient, and both Korean and English positioning concepts, and both English and Tzeltal directional systems. But this is only complicating the child’s problem. Rather than finding quick matches between the words they hear and a small number of universal concepts, they have to consider hundreds or thousands of alternative conceptual systems.

It’s also worth pointing out that parents are far more helpful than Quine’s native informant. People don’t just say words at random. As Michael Tomasello emphasizes, language is often presented as a commentary on a situation the child already understands, such as moving toys around with her mother. There’s a lot of repetition; the parents’ language is emphatic and simplified; the parents are not trying to confuse the child with talk of bags of rabbit parts.

BTW, this is in theory the last book I’m consulting for my syntax book.  So, I’ll soon have a first draft, at least.

 

I just finished The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia, by Laura Miller. It’s absolutely delightful, and I recommend it to those in the Venn intersection of People who used to love C.S. Lewis and People who no longer love C.S. Lewis.

bad-susan

Previously: WTF happened to Susan

There’s a weird phenomenon where people discover  C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien as children, absolutely love them, discover that both were Christians— and discard  just Lewis.

Miller is writing for these people, and does a great job explaining what she loved about Lewis, why she felt betrayed by his ‘evangelism’, what else is wrong with Lewis, and why after all she finds a lot to value in his books.

Before getting to that, though, I want to emphasize: whatever you don’t like in Lewis, whatever is problematic, is just as much there in Tolkien. I don’t really get why Tolkien gets a free pass. I mean, God is right there (see the Silmarillion); Gandalf is a frigging angel; Frodo suffers because saints suffer. The men of the east and south are irredeemably bad (no one even preaches Eru to them), the ideal state is agricultural feudalism, and the Scouring of the Shire is a top-down aristocratic coup to restore things as they were for the last thousand years.

Miller covers Tolkien as well, and by her account, Tolkien was really far more bigoted. Lewis was Anglican but accepted all Christian churches; Tolkien only really approved of his own Catholicism. Lewis liked Celtic mythology; Tolkien found it “rambling and incoherent.” Both were casually sexist, but Lewis provided interesting female protagonists; both Bilbo and Frodo’s adventuring groups were all-male clubs.

True, Tolkien kept his theism on a very low boil in LOTR and The Hobbit, while Narnia is full of Christian elements. Far more than Miller, I’d suggest that not being able to read and enjoy it, despite that, is bigotry. If you said you couldn’t read The Arabian Nights or Salman Rushdie or Orhan Pamuk because the writers were Muslims, that would be bigotry; likewise if you couldn’t read Journey to the West because it’s at root a Buddhist story.

This doesn’t mean you have to accept or like those elements, or that those feeling of betrayal aren’t real. Before getting to why Lewis is fun anyway, though, it’s worth looking more at what he was trying to do, and whether it succeeded.

For one thing, if he was attempting to evangelize kids, the evidence seems to be that he failed. The Christian imagery, obvious as it is to adults, just doesn’t register with most kids. Lewis was actually instrumental to my Christian period, but not because of Narnia; the culprit was his explicit apologetic works.

Miller makes a good point: there really are children’s books that preach to kids, and they’re pretty much unreadable. If Lewis was really preachy, no one would feel betrayed by him because no one would read him.

More than he was an evangelist, Lewis was that rare thing, a very readable and sensible moralist. More than half the time Aslan is there to model being a good person rather than to expound Christian doctrine. The situations where he guides or intervenes are usually universal moral situations: being the only one in your group to know some truth (Lucy in LWW); getting someone else in trouble for your own gain (Aravis), the dangers of gossip and group membership (Lucy and the magician’s book), cheating vs. following rules (Digory and the apples).

To an extent, Lewis succeeds so well in making Aslan interesting that he fails in the larger goal of making Jesus interesting. He’s very good at appealing to the imagination; but then the fall to actual pews and hymns feels all the more excruciating. The problem of Christianity isn’t the doctrines; it’s Christians. There are some very lovely Christians, but good lord, how the bad and boring ones have the loudest voices.

Also, as a conworlder, I wish I’d ever had an idea as good as Aslan. But then, he was far less successful in the Space Trilogy.

The one place where Lewis’s method falls apart, for me, is The Last Battle. Creation myths are kind of fun, so I don’t mind The Magician’s Nephew. But as Miller says, Lewis’s assertion that the “new Narnia”, the one in paradise, would have better stories than the old, falls flat. To be blunt, how do you have stories without conflict, without sin? And if the stories are so great, why isn’t there a Book 8?  (I have the same problem with the Singularity, by the way.)

There’s other stuff to worry about— Lewis was by no means progressive even for his time. He was anti-Nazi, as Tolkien was, but disliked most anything modern, including the progressives of his time. (Admittedly many of them were hard to like; when he got to know them, they were busy excusing Stalin.) He was pretty xenophobic and even more sexist. (It’s curious that though he does have male villains, by far the liveliest and most memorable of his villains— Jadis, the Lady of the Green Kirtle, Miss Hardcastle— are women.)

Now, if you can’t read a book with such things, I won’t argue. Miller explains pretty well, I think, why she can enjoy the books anyway, for the good parts, while acknowledging the problems.

And there really are a lot of good parts in Narnia: the exuberant appeals to the senses; the little factoids (why you want to use a knife rather than a sword to peel apples); children having really interesting adventures far away from parents; the sly asides (e.g. the titles on Tumnus’s bookshelf); the eclectic interest in everything fantastical, from pagan mythology to George MacDonald; characters like Reepicheep and Puddleglum.

By the way, if you like Lewis and/or Anthony Bourdain, you must read this fantastic mashup: No Reservations, Narnia, by Rachel Manija Brown.

Anyway, Miller’s book is really good, and she seems Lewisian in the best sense: like someone you could spend a delightful time with in a pub or on a long walk. One of the things Lewis emphasized (more in his other writings than in Narnia) was the joys of friendship: finding someone who is thrilled by the same things you are— whether or not they take the same lessons from them. Her book is like having that kind of chat, centering on Lewis but moving on to England, Ireland, Tolkien, World War I, the Middle Ages, various mythologies, and other fantasy/sf writers, as needed.

(Plus, as a skeptic, she’s free of the fustiness that believers too often adopt when writing about Lewis. From Lewis and other Inklings, I once suffered from a bit of Britophilia… but I was cured by reading one of Lewis’s super-admirers. Admire an author, but don’t try to be him.)