5.31.2019

5.29.2019

Godfrey's Thoughts on Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence

A Hross from C.S. Lewis' Out of the Silent Planet

As a Catholic who enjoys reading and writing science fiction, one dilemma I've had to consider is theologically, is the existence of non-human sentient beings possible? At first blush, it may seem problematic because there is no mention of life outside of Earth in the Bible or traditional theology. There is the fact that Jesus Christ (not only God, but a human being) is the saviour for the entire universe -- so where would that leave non-human sentient creatures? It is interesting to consider how they might fit into God's Plan and how we might explain same to nonbelievers or fellow Catholics who might be shaken (some could think the existence of "aliens" means that evolution is true, or that Adam and Eve did not exist, &c.).

I've discussed this topic a number of times with fellow Catholics and there seem to be a few lines of thought. The first question is whether they are ensoulled creatures or not?

One line of thought is that if sentient creatures had souls, then God would have to have a different salvation plan for them than for humans, since they would not be descendents of Adam. They could be more like angels (not fallen) or I suppose they could be fallen and in need of redemption but this raises further issues as Christ is the redeemer of all yet how can he redeem non-human creatures who are not descendents of Adam? That said I'm not aware of any explicit teaching that excluded the possibility of races with immortal souls who are not descended from Adam with an alternate path of redemption.

There is also the option of creatures with immortal souls who never sinned and therefore, like angels, are not in need of redemption. This appears to be what C.S. Lewis portrayed in his Space Trilogy.

I tend to prefer two "simpler" solutions:


  1. That non-human sentient life could not be ensouled life. I personally find it "risky" to posit creatures with immortal souls who are not redeemed by Christ. But what constitutes ensouled life? The soul is rational but this could be a necessary but not a sufficient condition for ensoulment. My view is that, to be ensouled, one must be infused with the faculty to know and love God (even if that faculty, like the rational one, is never actuated by the development of some individuals). It is clear to me that rationality itself does not equal ensoulement because some apes, parrots, mynah birds, and porpoises are supposedly self-aware but not ensouled and not able to comprehend the concept of God. I think it could therefore be possible to have highly intelligent, sentient, even civilized and technologically advanced beings than nevertheless have no souls. I think an excellent speculative example of this are the "Moties" in the novel, The Mote in God's Eye.  While the question is never answered in the novel, it is my opinion that the aliens encountered by humans in the book (the "Moties") are indeed soul-less creatures  because they really have no ability to choose between right and wrong -- everything they do in the novel is dictated by their biological imperatives.
  2. That apparently non-human sentient life is actually human. There are a myriad of ways that this can be worked around. Perhaps Ante-Deluvian humans had developed space travel before the Great Flood, and some escaped the Great Deluge? In which case they would be Star Trek style "aliens" who look completely human. For stranger looking creatures, genetic engineering could create creatures who look alien but have human souls -- like the eponymous character in my short story "Chimera" (who could easily be considered an E.T. if encountered on another planet).

5.24.2019

TRAILS, STORY 1

By Anna and Barbara Blackwell (April 2019)


When a group of mice were captured by the ruthless badger named Spoon Paw tried to free themselves from the their slavery, they were unfortunate in their attempt. But it came to pass that a weasel named Fork decided to free them but he wanted to use them for his own purpose.

When he "rescued" the mice from Spoon Paw, the mice were furious that Fork wanted to keep them enslaved and they fought back. Spoon Paw managed to find them again and recapture them and threw them along with Fork into a cauldron of water. The mice struggled to save their lives from drowning; a mice named Joseph climbed out onto a flat form and came face-to-face with Fork.

Fork was furious and engaged Joseph in mortal combat. Unfortunately Joseph was terribly injured but as he bled to death he threw a dagger at Fork, stunning him he fell into the water. But Joseph was too injured and weak himself and both he and Fork drowned.

Later some mice found the cauldron of drowned mice, Joseph and Fork among them. Spoon Paw, who had slipped away into the shadows claimed to himself the victory. Some still say he lives in his burrow. To this date the tale is told around bonfires in Season Folk villages; some still believe that Spoon Paw still lives and seeks to enslave more mice.

5.22.2019

Book Review: The Mote in God's Eye



Title: The Mote in God's Eye 
Author: Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle  
Publisher: Pocket  
My Rating: 4.5 stars (out of 5)  
Summary in a Sentence: The "Second Empire of Man" encounters aliens for the first time and they struggle towards the truth about this very alien race, in an excellent and gripping suspense novel that meticulously examines every aspect of First Contact and is devoid of the smut that characterises the vast majority of contemporary science fiction.

Good science fiction is often difficult to come by, especially if one looks at works written in the last decade. The genre has, sadly, in all to many instances, degenerated into little more than immorality in a futuristic setting. But one can still look back to the 70s and earlier and find many quality works, among them is The Mote in God's Eye, a masterpiece of science fiction writing in my opinion.

It tells the story of first contact between man and an extra-terrestrial alien race. This contact begins when a small probe propelled by a solar sail, arrives in the New Caledonia star system after a centuries-long trip from "the Mote", a small star that looks like a speck against the red eye of a red giant. The Imperial Navy Star Ship MacArthur under the command of Lord Roderick Blaine, heading to New Scotland for repairs after helping put down a rebellion, is the nearest ship and is sent to intercept. The lone crewmember of the alien ship dies of an apparent life-support system failure when Captain Blaine brings the ship aboard. The local viceroy decides to put together an expedition to the Mote to make contact with the race that sent this ship (although the Empire encompasses thousands of worlds, no sentient alien life had yet been discovered). Against the objections of pacifist scientists, the expedition consists of the MacArthur and an even bigger battleship under the command of a particularly ruthless Admiral Kutuzov who has orders to destroy MacArthur if there is any risk of the aliens capturing any Imperial technology (such as the Alderson Drive which allows for instantaneous travel between stars, and the Langston Field, a kind of forcefield). With MacArthur packed with a scientific team on top of her regular compliment, a Mohammedan businessman under house arrest on suspicion of treason, and Lady Fowler, a noble rescued from the revolt Captain Blaine helped quell (and who refuses to get off the ship), they embark for the Mote.

Unlike many novels of this genre, the authors consider every angle of first contact from economical, to political, to religious. They also consider all of these without the novel ever dragging and, interestingly, from the perpective of a Catholic empire that somewhat resembles the British Empire at it's height. I'm not sure why authors (who from their other works are clearly no friends of the Church) chose to do this, but it makes the story all that much more intriguing to the Catholic reader (and apparently to non-Catholics as well, as this is one of the more successful science fiction novels of all time and much preferred to its sequel, which I shall review later, which gives the reader a far less Catholic version of the Empire of Man).

The aliens are incredibly well done. They are totally alien without being so strange that the book is confusing or meaningless. They are so well developed that when a priestly character considers whether they might be ensoulled being or not, the Catholic reader can consider along with him. The mutual mistrust between the aliens (called "Moties" -- the novel makes the reasons for this nomenclature and the title of the novel clear) adds great suspence, for just as the human hold some things back, it's clear the Moties are holding something back (indeed, a terrible and potentially deadly -- to humanity -- secret).

The characters are for the most part well done. Although a few of them felt cliche, I still enjoyed them and didn't find this detracted from the novel (in fact, it was refreshing to read a book where every character didn't have to be "unique"). The book overall is excellently written and keeps the reader glued to the pages throughout.

Catholicism in the Novel

I want to return to the Empire of Man from this novel and its Catholic aspect because not only does it warm the cockles of my heart to see old-school Catholicism in a novel, it also tells us a lot about how non-Catholics percieved the changes wrought by Vatican II (especially when we compare the empire to its incarnation in the sequal). The Mote in God's Eye was first published in 1972 (Wikipedia is wrong on this point; I have a first edition copy which is copyrighted 1972), which means that it was most likely written during the late 1960s. The Novus Ordo Missae had not yet been released, Archbishop Lefebvre hadn't felt the necessity to form the S.S.P.X yet, the Pope had recently come out in favour of traditional teachings on contraception, and to outsiders the Church must have seemed to be pretty much the same as ever.

Although the word Catholic is never used in the novel, Catholicism is clearly the official religion of the Empire of Man. The MacArthur (the ship sent to the Moties' home world) is blessed by a Cardinal wielding an asperger before they leave on their trip, the ship carries a chaplain who is a celibate, Latin-speaking priest, and there is frequent mention of bishops and of "the Church" (upper case "c" is significant).

This Catholic Empire has some of the following peculiarities that also make the novel (inadvertently, no doubt) a source of some good moral examples:
  • Contraceptives are banned in the Empire. Lady Fowler explains to the Moties at one point how humans are always fertile (unlike the Moties) and that they can choose not to have sex if they don't want to get pregnant, but that contraceptives (which exist) are forbidden.
  • Slacks are not worn by women of the Empire -- Lady Fowler experiences the difficulties of wearing a skirt in zero gravity and is unhappy to be forced to wear some sort of "space bloomers" to maintain modesty aboardship.
  • Only men serve in the Imperial Navy; Lady Fowler is in fact the only woman on board MacArthur and even then the captain is not happy (even though he loves her and eventually marries her).
  • Chaperones: Lady Fowler is never alone with any man aboard the MacArthur and her quarters are kept strictly seperate and jealously guarded (if memory serves, she is given the cabin of a high-ranking officer to ensure privacy). The word chaperone is explicitly used, even.
  • "Prudery": The Officer of the Watch switches off the viewscreens when the Moties start mating so that no one will see the impure sight. The Moties are told about monogamy and that this is the only acceptable sexual relationship in the Empire. There are strong allusions to fornication being verboten, although I don't believe it is explicitly mentioned.
  • The Empire is a strict Monarchy, not a democracy with a figurehead. While the Emperor is not an absolute monarch, he is clearly the uncontested ruler of the Empire. It is also patriarchical; there are no female governors, senators, or the like mentioned.
  • There is no religious liberty. The Moslem Horace Bury often laments in the novel how his false religion does not enjoy the same rights as "the Church" and we see the "Church of Him" referred to as heretical and its followers shunned.
  • One of the most interesting scenes of the novel is when Father Hardy tries to determine whether the Moties are humans, animals, angels, or demons. Unfortunately, the authors leave him undecided and never give us a scene from Father's POV again in the novel, but his thought process reveals a very traditional one.


The Mote in God's Eye is not fluff reading, as a number of important topics are dealt with, although the religion aspects are certainly given much shorter shrift that I'd have liked (on the other hand, non-Catholics trying to deal with Catholic theology in any depth would have been a disaster, so the surface treatment given to religion may be a blessing). In sum, I highly recommend this novel to anyone who has even a passing interest in science fiction.

5.17.2019

MARS RESCUE

By Anna Blackwell (January 2019, age 11)

Captain Wellhelm watched as his ship slowly reached the surface of the rocky planet Mars. The captain had been sent by the Council of Space Exploration to find the missing ship African Panda. So far the Council had the theory that the ship had crashed on Mars.

"We are now opening the boarding ramp, sir."

Captain Wellhelm spun his chair to the side. "Mister Lars, you have the bridge. I'll take Science Officer Sara and Mister Pat and Mister Steves."

The captain felt a wave of nervousness sweep over him as he descended down the ramp. Time flew by. There was still no sign of any life forms, until ...

"Sir, I am picking up something," said Mister Pat.

"Life forms?" said the captain, relieved.

"Hmmm ... no it ... let's see ... a sand storm."

"How far?"

"Range one point two kilometres."

"Buzzards!" said the captain.

They turned back but things got bad. Wind began to pick up speed.

"Sir!" said Mister Pat. "We'll never make it to the ship in time."

"Rats, that's the last thing we need," said the Captain.

"Sir, I see wreckage over there, maybe we can shelter in it," said Science Officer Sara.

"Good eye," the Captain said. Miss Sara always had backup plans for everything.

The door to the wreckage was stuck half open, but that did not stop Mister Steves. They got inside in the nick of time. They got the door closed just as the storm hit.

"Saved," said Mister Pat.

"That was too close," said Miss Sara.

"Sir ..."

"Yes, Mister Steves?"

"We aren't alone."

Suddenly they heard the sound of something moving.

"Quick, draw your blasters," said the Captain.

The noise came again.

"I'll check it out," said Mister Steves.

Miss Sara began to shiver as Mister Steves disappeared into the shadows. All was quiet until suddenly, like a clap of thunder, Mister Steves leapt out shouting,

"I got him, I got him!"

Muffled screams came from his victim. Captain Wellhelm and Mister Pat rushed over. To their surprise, instead of a Martian, it was a young Chinese boy.

"Let go of him, Mister Steves."

The Security Officer, Steves, let the boy go. Miss Sara ran over.

"Don't worry, you're safe. Now calm down and tell us what happened here."

Soon the boy explained that his name was Chang and he had been kidnapped from his family to work in the secret mines on Mars. One day when a major sand storm was coming he managed to run away and hide in the ruins of the dead space ship. By a miracle it was not blown away. Since that day he had remained trapped on Mars.

"Well, we get it all now," said Steves. "But kidnapping, that is illegal, those who did so will be hanged!"

"There'll be no need for that, Mister Steves," said the Captain. "The criminals must have died in the storm otherwise we would have found them by now.

When the storm ended they all headed back for the ship, but before they reached it ...

"Sir, some creatures are coming this way!" said Mister Pat, alarmed.

"Cartendons," said Chang.

Captain Wellhelm didn't bother to ask what they were for they sounded bad enough. Soon everyone was running as fast as they could but soon the sound of the creatures was quite near. The Captain could feel their hot breath on his neck. No matter how hard they ran the beasts seemed to be getting closer and closer. As they were overcome by the beasts, a ship out of the distance firing red-hot lasers. It was Captain Wellhelm's ship the Destrier coming to their aid.

"We're saved," cheered Miss Sara.

Once again the Captain's ship saved his life. Chang was soon delivered back to his family. But the criminal gang's bosses were still out there for Captain Wellhelm and his crew to catch. But that is another story.

5.15.2019

Role Playing Games


I remember when I was growing up that role playing games, especially "Dungeons & Dragons" had a bad reputation, especially among religiously-minded people. This was no doubt due at least in part to the much publicized murder of Lieth von Stein by his drug addict step-son and friends -- and the TV docudramas that focused on the fact these punks played Dungeons & Dragons. Also, Protestant polemicists like Jack Chick spread tracts claiming that the game encouraged sorcery and the veneration of demons. Of course, Jack Chick also calls the Catholic Eucharist "The Death Cookie", says that the Catholic Church not only founded Communism but also Nazism, and claims the Vatican has a computer databank of every single Protestant in the world for use in future prosecutions.

I have always been of the view, however, that D&D or any other role playing game is only as good (or bad) as the Game Master (the person who runs the game) and, to an extent, the players. Since it is a game with few set parameters and the game master makes up the story and charactrers for the game, he does have the power to insert bad or depraved scenarios but also good ones and to teach good lessons.

I've described RPGs to my children as something like a "choose your own adventure" book, but with almost unlimited options instead of just one or two per page, since you have a live narrator in the GM reacting to your choices in real time. So again, like any author, the GM has the ability to make a good or bad story.

With all that in mind, I've been looking for a game that the family could play together, since the girls are not interested in the war games that are the tabletop miniature games like Flames of War and Star Wars: Legion. We decided to give Role Playing Games a try since there is so much you can do with them that is not combat related. You can easily do games with no combat at all (but there will be some in ours to placate the boys). I decided to pick up the gaming system by Fantasy Flight Games called "GENESYS" because it is a "generic" role playing game suited to stories in any setting from fantasy to modern/realistic to hard science fiction to space fantasy. I'll talk more about the setting we are going to start with and the roles that each will be playing in the coming weeks. Albert has offered to write some game session summaries too.

5.08.2019

Boardgame Review: The Kids of Carcasonne


Name: The Kids of Carcassonne
Game Designer: Marco Teubner
Publisher: Hans im Glück
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Summary: Based on the adult board game "Carcasonne", this excellent simplified version is easy enough for young children to grasp, yet interesting enough to keep the attention of parents or older siblings; an excellent introduction to board games for young ones.

I believe it is good to get children involved in such games at an early age and "The Kids of Carcasonne" is a wonderful game to that end. The box says that the game is for ages 4+. The Blackwell children at three years old were able to play, but at four clearly grasped the concepts better and played with some strategy versus just matching up the tiles.

The game is based on the highly popular adult board game "Carcasonne". It consists of several "landscape tiles" with images of roads, buildings, and rivers on them, and children wearing the player colours running on the roads. Each player has a collection of coloured playing pieces that look like small people carved in wood. The players in turn draw a landscape tile and place it; in normal/adult Carcasonne, these the roads will not always or easily match with another piece but in this simplified version each tile has a road exiting each of the four sides meaning that they always match.



Amongst other features, the tiles show children in the player colors on the roads. Whenever a road is "finished", every player places one of his pieces on each appropriate picture. Roads are finished when they are closed at each end by a building or dead-end. The first player who manages to place all of his pieces wins the game.



There are four colours (red, blue, green, and yellow) so you can only play with four people, which is not ideal for large Catholic families in one sense, but on the other hand, keeps it simple which is important for young children. Also, playing time is only about 15-20 minutes so children can easily rotate who plays and do several games in an hour. As mentioned in the summary, unlike some other childrens' board games I've tried, this one is actually interesting for adults to play which is important when teaching the children how to play and also to give you another reason to spend time with your children.

"The Kids of Carcasonne" is fairly fast-paced, making it a good fit for young minds that haven't developed a long attention span yet. It is entertaining and an excellent way to spent 20 minutes to an hour with your children. It is somewhat competitive and one of them will win the game, but it is not too competitive since all the tiles match up eliminating the intensity of the adult version. It also has a pleasant mediæval theme and children like looking at the castles and the little children in mediæval garb chasing sheep and chickens about. I highly recommend it to any parent with young children around 4-5 years of age. Older children will probably enjoy it as well, but desire more complexity ere long.

This board game is not available at the "big" stores like Wal-Mart or Toys 'R' Us, but is readily available on the internet or at local specialty games stores.

5.03.2019

IN THE MATTER OF HIS MAJESTY THE KING AND THE PEOPLE

By Godfrey Blackwell

The Empty Casque Tavern was renowned as one of the great locations in Theudis wherein debates on all manner of topic, unhindered by controversy or taboo, were to be had. The king, overly tolerant according to some of his advisors, benignly overlooked the seditious rantings found there. It was thus that two old friends, Santere and Hermand, found themselves catching up, then reminiscing, then arguing across from one another at one of the Casque’s round oaken tables. It had been years since they studied together at the University of Theudis and there was a lot of all three to be had.

Santere had before him a fashionable cup of tea imported by trade caravans from the east, and one of his pretty but over made-up female admirers sitting on his lap. Of the two, he was the most intelligent, considered a prodigy when they studied at the University, although he was also lazy and thus made his living making outrageous speeches in places like the Casque (for in those days in the capital, there were those who could use such eloquent liberals to their political gain).

Hermand, on the other hand, was enjoying the pleasures of a snifter of brandy and an enormous and disreputable wooden pipe that he could nearly rest on his round belly. He was not as smart as Santere, but had worked hard to build a modest legal practice with which he supported his wife and five children. Had Santere been more honest with himself, he would have admitted that he envied Hermand, and moreover that he enjoyed the buttered-rum scent of the latter’s tobacco, but his unswerving devotion to enlightened ideology would allow for neither.

“Hermand, I can’t concentrate on my arguments with that vile smudge pot between us!”

“And I can scarce ponder the depths of two plus two with that strumpet blocking you from view!”

“Really, Hermand, you’ve become such a puritanical, intolerant bigot since university!” said Santere, although he kissed the girl and shooed her away. Heat rose in his cheeks when Hermand continued to puff on his pipe. “What would your wife think of such boorish language?”

“Well, I should think,” said Hermand, blowing a smoke ring up towards the beclouded rafters to needle Santere the more. “She’s wont to call an eggplant an eggplant.”

“What a horrid turn of phrase! What if there were eastlanders here?”

Hermand shrugged and raised his glass as if making a toast. “I’d bid them join me for a drink, purple skin and all, and offer a toast to His Majesty the King.”

“The King!” Did you learn nothing at the university? The monarchy is obsolete --”

“Watch your tongue now, Santere --”

“Aha! Typical of a close-minded reactionary, you won’t brook any contradiction, will you? Dom Berenfroy --”

“Should be defrocked and burned, but for the King’s overindulgence of renegade scholastics!” Hermand knocked back the last of his brandy and his meaty cheeks turned a darker shade of red.

“You arrogant jackanapes!” Santere felt like throwing his tea in Hermand’s face, but settled on banging a bony hand on the table, given the price of the former. “The people won’t tolerate the sort of tyranny you stand for. The oppression will end ere long and we’ll soon have a republic, you’ll see.”

“Please, spare me, Santere. Oppressed? This from an unemployed layabout who’s still well fed in Couronne, the wealthiest nation --”

“And most enlightened! But I suppose you’re too busy churning out more brats to read anything, judging by your proud ignorance.”

“If anyone’s ignorant, it’s people like you who can cling to utopian hallucinations when just over the border there’s republicans all right, and piles of bodies as tall as the cathedral in Waldassen.”

“Bah. In the end, all this doesn’t matter. The future is here, the King is as good as dead.”

“Now you’ve gone too far, Santere.” Hermand stood and clenched his meaty fists. “Now take that back!”

Santere had not mentally prepared himself for the possibility of a physical confrontation. He suddenly found he had no retort and fell backwards off his seat as he tried to rise. But being the favourite demagogue of those of a progressive persuasion at the Casque (which happened to be nearly the whole clientele), there were several drunken brawlers to come to his aid. As Hermand moved to help his friend up and apologise for his angry outburst, he was struck over the head by a bottle, and tumbled to the floor where a quartet of sloshed university students showed him the soles of their shoes.

Santere, having recovered his courage, and quite caught up with the moment, urged his disciples on until Hermand moved no more.

“The people have spoken!”


* * *


Alas, the idealistic brutes were as good at fighting as at dreaming about republics, and Hermand died early the next morning. The King’s Chausseurs did what investigation as they could, given the other unrest in the city, and a warrant was issued for Santere’s arrest. He was able to evade capture for a long time as the king’s power waned and the city convulsed with revolution. However, after seven years, the king did return and the Chausseurs had not lost their store of documents.

Thus, one crisp, sunny morning in late fall, Santere found himself again near the Empty Casque, only this time he was being dragged up to the gibbet that had been erected across from the tavern. The executioner summed everything up as he pulled the trapdoor lever.

“The king has spoken!”

Fin.

5.01.2019

Godfrey's Thoughts on "Shrek"


A reader asked me for my opinion on the "Shrek" films. I only ever saw the first two, and can't say I'm a fan of the franchise. To be sure, they are a source of some cheap laughs and I enjoy Mike Meyers.

But I don't like the underlying themes, the primary and most blatant being that evil is portrayed as good, good as evil, ugliness as beauty, and beauty as ugliness. Now, I suppose one could argue that the whole princess's true self being a troll is good for young girls in an age when girls as young as 6 are objectifying themselves as objects of lust, but I still don't like it. I think Shrek takes it too far in its quest to ridicule everything that is good and decent from basic hygiene to chivalry.

It also is a film that attempts to thoroughly demolish the sense of wonder and the marvelous in children with its cynical attacks on even basic manners and, casting the hideous evil creatures such as ogres and dragons in the role of heroes and casting normal humans and especially knights in the role of villains. It's also pretty cliché since this has been the standard for a while now. It's to the point that it might be downright "edgy" to write a story these days that features a knight or even (horrors!) a prince in the protagonist role (and not as an anti-hero). Or having a princess who DOESN'T pummel everyone, for that matter (Shrek's princess is, of course, is a hand-to-hand combat master).

The first Shrek film especially, also has a lot of "adult" humour inserted into it. I suppose the logic is that children will be too young to understand the double entendres and innuendos, but I do not like exposing them to that sort of crass humour. For example, the evil "prince" is a Lord Farquuad, which is a very thinl disguise for the vile f---wad insult heard in gutter speak today. Or when "Robin Hood" is singing a song he is interrupted by his Merry Men at a strategic point so that it sounds like he's referencing an impure act. There's a lot better stuff out there for children. I personally quite liked the Narnia adaptations and I am one of those rarities who likes both the Lord of the Rings novels AND Peter Jackson's film adaptations .

Further reading: Nourishing an Appetite for the Marvelous by Dr. Marian T. Horvath
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