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Technology of the Gods

Technology can give us the power of gods, but can it help us become more human?

The promise of technology is the promise of power. Power over the material world, and over our fates as humans. Power that was once the sole domain of the gods. It was from them that Prometheus stole fire to give to man, and with it the gifts of progress and civilisation. But Prometheus was punished for his audacity, chained to a rock to be eaten alive by Zeus’s eagle for all eternity. The gods do not forgive mortals who grasp for power. Icarus is burnt for flying too high, and Phaëton scars the earth when he attempts to ride the chariot of the sun god. We have harnessed fire and the heat of suns in nuclear energy. Looking in to the first nuclear mushroom cloud Robert Oppenheimer quoted the Bhagavad Gita, ‘Now I am become Death, destroyer of worlds.’

In the modern myths of science fiction men master the power of the gods. Faster than light travel transports us across galaxies. Cybernetics give us the strength of Hercules and brain implants make us as wise as the Oracle. Virtual reality computer simulations allow us to shape the world itself in the image of our dreams. The gifts of Prometheus today hold out the promise of a tomorrow beyond all imagination. Science fiction predicts a coming ‘technological singularity’, a ‘rapture of the nerds’, in which man is liberated from the limitations of material reality by ever more powerful technology. Why shouldn’t we take the power of the gods for our own?

Gods are cruel and capricious creatures. But no more so than the men who invent them. We make our gods in our own image, in the image of the power we desire. Zeus is the king of the gods because he is the archetype of every mortal king and emperor who has ever ruled, surrounded by a pantheon of lesser deities, modelled on the royal courts of queens, princes and lesser courtiers. The Christian god Jehovah, that ultimate white-bearded patriarch, faced with the aberrant race of men, chooses to obliterate his own creations through flood with no more sympathy or remorse than a corporate CEO downsizing his work force. Beautiful Ishtar was goddess of both love and war, a sacred whore who used both sex and violence to rule over men, as potent a symbol to her Babylonian followers as a prima donna pop star or Hollywood A-List actress today. Gods do not just walk among us, they are us. Our ideals of power and success made flesh. And they are as petty, powerful, vacuous, mysterious, destructive and creative as they have always been.

In Hindu and Buddhist mythology men and gods have always lived side by side. We are caught in the material illusions of Samsara, the cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth that awaits us all, gods or mortals, until we discover the escape route. And not just gods and humans, but a hierarchy of hell demons, hungry ghosts and animal spirits, all caught in the unending cycle of material existence. From Samsara come the Western concepts of heaven and hell. But in the philosophy of the East both heaven and hell are a place on earth, a place that every being, from the lowest demon to the highest god, makes for itself. Traditional Buddhist mythology divides Samsara in to six realms, often depicted in richly illustrated artworks as the Wheel of Life.

The Hell Demon, the Hungry Ghost and the Animal Spirit. The three lowest creatures in the cycle of Samsara, and the three lowest states in the psychology it describes. The Hell Demon is consumed by anger, hate and violence. They can do nothing but kill or be killed. They represent our most basic drive for survival, and manifest powerfully in the psyche of the criminal, the murderer and the psychopath. The Hungry Ghost is our hunger, thirst and greed. They can only consume, and their appetites grow the more they are fed. This is the psychology of the addict, the junkie, the alcoholic. But these aspects of the psyche exist in all of us. And with enough pain and suffering any of us can be reduced to the psychological state of a demon, ghost, or even an animal.

The animal spirit contains both the hellish rage of the demon, and the hunger of the ghost. But more than anything, it lusts after sex. Gautama Buddha, the great philosopher of enlightenment and liberation from the cycle of Samsara, taught that if humans had one other drive as powerful as sex, enlightenment of any kind would be impossible. Spiritual seekers in every age have struggled to tame their sexual desire, or transmute it into the purer form of love. Even the gods are not immune to the lusts of their animal nature, so when Jupiter manifests to penetrate the maidenhood of a young virgin, it is always in the form of a swan or bull or lion. All humans are animals, but not all animals are human. And it is only when we can control the demons, ghosts and animals of our psyche that the higher realms of Samsara open to us.

Those higher realms are populated by the gods. The first realm is the home of the Asura or ‘jealous gods’. As all gods must, the Asura have risen above the base psychology of demons, ghosts and animals. But in their contest to enter the higher realms they have become consumed by pride, wrath and most of all jealousy. They fight endlessly among themselves for ever greater power. These are the politicians, celebrities, artists, entrepreneurs and business leaders of our world today. Powerful individuals capable of both great good and great evil, but always prideful of their position and jealous of any attack upon it. In the realm above the Asura are the Deva, or ‘divine gods’. Those who have reached such power that they no longer need concern themselves with the petty bickering and rivalries of their jealous underlings. But the Devas can be arrogant and cruel to those less powerful. And when their power wanes or is challenged, their untamed rage returns them to the beginning of the cycle as hell demons. The Devas are our aristocrats and socialites, those born to wealth and privilege, so detached from the world that they rarely play any significant part in it, beyond continuing to live off its wealth for as long as they are able. Prometheus’ true crime was not stealing the secret of fire, but revealing in the theft the falsity of the gods. That they do not stand aloof and above creation, but are as subject to its laws as all other creatures.

The cycle of Samsara is a portrait painted in myth of the society that created it, the society of the Indian sub-continent three millennia ago. A society stratified by wealth and a rigid caste system, not unlike our own globalised society today. And it is a map of the human psyche, from its hellish origins in the evolutionary struggle for survival, to its potential for godlike power and complexity. The same psychological forces drive us now as then, and keep us trapped in cycles of violence and addiction, oppression and power.

And it is technology, from the fire stolen by Prometheus, to the nuclear energy unleashed by Oppenheimer, that fuels the cycle of Samsara. It is technology that makes weapons for the hell demons to make war with. It is technology that feeds our hungry ghosts with addictive drugs. It is technology that exploits our animal drive for sex to keep us glued to our screens. And it is technology that fuels the fight for power between the jealous gods of our age. The billionaire industrialists and technology entrepreneurs who wield the power in our world.

But technology also has the potential to liberate. The sixth realm of Samsara is the realm of humans. It is depicted in some traditions as the highest realm, in others as balanced in the middle. To be human is to have overcome the anger, greed and lust of the lower realms, but also to have rejected the power struggles of the gods. To be human is hard. We are exposed to both the hatred of the lower realms, and the whims of the gods. But it is only as a human that we can escape the cycle of Samsara and achieve enlightenment. Only humans are capable of true learning, and hence true liberation. The question we must ask of our technology is this. Does it lead us further in to the cycle of Samsara, the cycle of violence, addiction, lust and the quest for god like power. Or does it, in the end, help us to become more human?

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Understanding Christopher Priest

Writing can be a cruel game. Not least for those who, to innocent bystanders, might seem like winners in the game of literary life. Take Christopher Priest for instance. With a long and esteemed career in writing, numerous accolades under his belt and a Hollywood adaptation of his novel The Prestige still within living memory, Priest has enjoyed a bigger piece of the pie than most writers will ever know.

So why then would a man held in rather high esteem by the community of Science Fiction writers and readers throw a hissy fit about the recently announced Clarke awards shortlist? The immediate assumption one might make is that Priest is somewhat vexed about his own novel The Islanders being overlooked for this year’s shortlist. And no doubt this is one of many straws piled upon this particular heehawing donkey’s back, but in this case probably not the most significant one.

A more significant reason might be that Christopher Priest has spent most of his professional career not being J G Ballard. The two writers began their professional careers around the same period of the early to mid 1960′s, among a number of writers who would become known as the New Wave, all loosely connected by their shared agenda of making SF a serious and respected literary genre. Priest is not now among the first writers that come to mind in discussions of the New Wave…which is of course the point.

The role of camaraderie and rivalry is sometimes overlooked when we draw up our cultural historic narratives. But they are a powerful force in the lives of writers as with all artists. Yes, there is the pure joy of creation. Yes, there is the need to have your work read by an audience. Yes, there is that other need for a hefty pay cheque now and again to keep body and soul together. But what really drives us is the desire to be…part of the scene, in the loop of the creative life, up amongst the top names in the field. In tempting to believe that all the top writers of the day are all bosom buddies, that they are live in a big house together and go on rambunctious group holidays. But while this is not literally true, there’s no doubt that these writers pay each other a very great deal of attention, even if sometimes that attention manifests as deliberately ignoring your rivals.

Christopher Priest has spent his entire career being close enough to the top table to smell the gravy, but has never quite been invited to sit down. His writing is extremely clever, but even in the ‘literature of ideas’ that is SF, “extremely clever” is really a way of saying rather unemotional, dry, and hard to love. It has all the qualities of someone who has spent decades studying, learning, dedicating every fraction of a considerable intellect to learning the rules and structures of fiction, but never quite managed to get his own soul on the page. Which, in the end, is the only thing we really demand of a novelist.

First the New Wave, then wave after wave of SF writers have swept past Christopher Priest. Many of them far less intelligent. Most of them far less educated in the field of SF. And now, just when Priest might have expected to be acclaimed as an elder statesman of the genre, another wave of writers have taken the limelight instead. The bulk of the criticisms Priest lays at the feet of the current generation of SF writers including Charles Stross and China Mieville are products of his own swollen, bruised and delusional ego, but a few are true. All artists are imperfect, all fail in many, many ways. But then don’t we always in the end love the people we love as much for their imperfections? The rhetorical framework of Christopher Priest’s screed, a rhetoric shared by some other extremely clever writers, seems to pose a kind of Platonic ideal work of fiction, for which they are always striving, and which gives them cause to hurl abuse at those weak, frail, all too human writers who fail to reach it.

Because the real cruelty of writing is what it makes some writers do to themselves. Christopher Priest is and will continue to be highly respected in the SF community. His next book will likely be more highly publicised than all his others put together after this hissy fit. Let’s just hope he puts his soul on the page this time, rather than another mechanical exercise in platonic perfectionism.

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