The Existential Foundations for Science Fiction (Tyler Hummel, 12/02/23, Voegelin View)

[M]ore challenging and artistically complex cinema is still being made and wildly embraced. In the past decade, a number of surprisingly challenging and thematically complex works of science fiction have broken out into mainstream popularity in a manner that would seem surprising, were it not that this small wave of intelligent films seems to have momentarily crested.

This cluster is the subject of SUNY Polytechnic Institute associate professor Ryan Lizardi’s new book Existential Science Fiction, which offers a narrow but meaningful unpacking of this strange trend. As he argues, between 2012 and 2019, audiences received numerous high-budget science fiction films that managed to be both audience-pleasing spectacles and high-minded examinations of the nature of identity and human connection—these including Prometheus, Gravity, Interstellar, The Martian, Arrival, Blade Runner 2049, Annihilation, and Ad Astra.

Lizardi defines “existential” as “[what] it means to exist as a human being.” These films all come from different philosophical backgrounds, but what they share in common is a desire to muse on difficult questions about what it truly means to be human. These films, despite their science-fiction dress, are fundamentally about us, as human beings. As our author writes,

What is it about our current cultural landscape that fosters content dealing directly with questions about our identity, our memory, our continuity of self, but does so through the setting of science fiction and space exploration? These works seem to be leveraging the external trappings of the science fiction genre … to explore internal thematic ideas of reaching without and within ourselves to find a continuity of our individual and collective identities.

The trend doesn’t stop with cinema. He also identifies the video games Assassins Creed, Bioshock, Soma, and Death Stranding as high-concept science fiction games worthy of discussion and extends his study to include the television shows Legion and Westworld. Lizardi doesn’t necessarily thread the needle of this trend with any sort of theories as to why this trend happened. He acknowledges fully that Hollywood is a capitalist industry and that these trends are likely profit-driven more than intentional, particularly given the diversity of the artists and mediums behind this trend.

The point being where profit lies: the Culture Wars are a rout.


PODCAST: Philip Goff — The Purpose of the Universe (Michael Schermer Show, 12/02/23, Skeptic)

In contrast to religious thinkers, Goff argues that the traditional God is a bad explanation of cosmic purpose. Instead, he explores a range of alternative possibilities for accounting for cosmic purpose, from the speculation that we live in a computer simulation to the hypothesis that the universe itself is a conscious mind. Goff scrutinizes these options with analytical rigour, laying the foundations for a new paradigm of philosophical enquiry into the middle ground between God and atheism. Ultimately, Goff outlines a way of living in hope that cosmic purpose is still unfolding, involving political engagement and a non-literalist interpretation of traditional religion.


America’s undying empire: why the decline of US power has been greatly exaggerated (Tom Stevenson, 30 Nov 2023, The Guardian)

The US has military superiority over all other countries, control of the world’s oceans via critical sea lanes, garrisons on every continent, a network of alliances that covers much of the industrial world, the ability to render individuals to secret prisons in countries from Cuba to Thailand, preponderant influence over the global financial system, about 30% of the world’s wealth and a continental economy not dependent on international trade.

To call this an empire is, if anything, to understate its range. Within the American security establishment, what it amounted to was never in doubt. US power was to be exercised around the world using the “conduits of national power”: economic centrality, military scale, sole possession of a global navy, nuclear superiority and global surveillance architecture that makes use of the dominant American share of the Earth’s orbital infrastructure.

If proponents of the end of the US global order do not assert a decrease in the potency of the instruments of American power, that is because there has been no such decrease. The share of global transactions conducted in dollars has been increasing, not declining. No other state can affect political outcomes in other countries the way the US still does. The reach of the contemporary US is so great that it tends to blend into the background of daily events. In January 2019, the US demanded that Germany ban the Iranian airline Mahan Air from landing on its territory. In September 2020, it sanctioned the chief prosecutor of the international criminal court for refusing to drop investigations into American citizens. In February 2022, at US request, Japan agreed to redirect liquefied fossil gas, which is critical to Japanese industry, to Europe in the event of a conflict with Russia over Ukraine. At the height of that conflict, the secretary of state, Antony Blinken, found the time to visit Algiers to negotiate the reopening of a gas pipeline to Spain via Morocco. These were all quotidian events, unremarkable daily instances of humdrum imperial activity. The practical operation of the empire remains poorly understood, not despite its ubiquity, but because of it.

From this perspective, the menial adherence of Britain to the US global project is at least intelligible. Historically, American planners divided their approach to the rest of the world by region. In western Europe and Japan, American interests were usually pursued by cautious political management. In Latin America and the Middle East, constant interventions, coups and invasions were needed. In east Asia and south-east Asia there was military exertion at scale. As long as it lasted, the Soviet Union was cordoned off and contained, against the wishes of the generals in the US Strategic Air Command, who would have preferred to destroy it in a nuclear holocaust. The major US allies were on the right side of this calculus and had less reason to begrudge it.

When dealing with the US, elites in countries on the periphery of the global economy still often behave as though they are dealing with the imperial centre.

It’s not just that other nations aspire to be like America but that the only way to achive that is Americanization. No one can escape the End of History in the long run.