The Black Hole by Alan Dean Foster

fosterad-blackholeNovelisations are a thing of the past – the distant past. They were useful in the days when hardly anyone owned a VCR (that’s video cassette recorder, since the term is no longer in common usage). Back then, the only chance of rewatching a movie was to wait until it was televised. So we had novelisations as a means of re-experiencing our favourite films. But since everything is now available inexpensively on DVD or blu-ray, novelisations are an irrelevance.

Alan Dean Foster could write them well. In the case of his treatment of James Cameron’s Aliens, I recall that it gave fans a chance to experience the content of the extended cut long before it was ever released. The movie The Black Hole is a childhood favourite of mine, and I have always been haunted by the strange ending which involved an elaborate journey through heaven and hell. Very disturbing for an eight-year-old to watch. I could never figure out what the conclusion of the movie was trying to say. So I decided to visit the novelisation and see if Foster would shed any light on the matter.

The story begins with a small spacecraft, the Palomino, carrying a crew of five, travelling through deep space in search of life. They come across a long lost vessel, the Cygnus, positioned just outside a massive black hole – remarkably not being sucked in. The Palomino crew investigate. Aboard the Cygnus is Dr. Hans Reinhardt, living with only robots for company. He has invented gravity-defying technology and plans to take his ship through the black hole. The story and characters are reminiscent of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

Foster adds a lot of detail that wasn’t in the movie, giving Dr. Reinhardt a much more substantial background. There are also a few incidental things that are different from the movie. And what of the trip through heaven and hell, which clearly took up a significant slice of the movie’s budget? Well, Foster ignores it completely, opting for an abstract ending about unified consciousness. I feel cheated, frankly. I wish I had jumped to the last chapter and read it, instead of investing my time in the whole book. Then again, perhaps I was naive for thinking that a 1979 Disney space opera would have a deeper side.

The Origin of Satan by Elaine Pagels

pagelse-originofsatanMy first inkling that there was something wrong with our typical ideas about Satan came as a result of reading the Bible in its entirely. Until one does that, one is usually blind to the fact that Satan is hardly in the Old Testament at all. And when he is mentioned (primarily in the Book fof Job), he doesn’t seem to be the same guy that Christians are familiar with. He’s not the head of a kingdom of fallen angels in opposition to God. Instead, he’s keeping company with the regular angels. And he doesn’t step out of line. When God gives him instructions, he carries them out to the letter. The only “satanic” thing about him is the fact that he has a dirty job; he’s a sort of prosecutor. When God boasts about how much Job loves him, Satan is inclined to be sceptical, claiming that Job is only playing nice because God plays nice. “Take away the benefits and Job will curse you,” says Satan. And so the trials of Job begin.

The Christian depiction of Satan as the powerful “anti-God” is not shared by mainstream Judaism and never was. It was the exclusive view of a few minor sects, such as the Essenes and the one that would blossom into what we now call Christianity. Pagels chief concern is to examine the effects of this rebranding of Satan. The subtitle of the book is “How Christians Demonized Jews, Pagans and Heretics.” The Satan of Christianity represents all that is evil. So the moral dramas of our lives now take on a cosmic significance, as battles between God and Satan. The dangerous side of this is when we come to view the wider arena of the world in the same terms. When we view our enemies as allied with Satan and ourselves as allied with God, we are provided with immediate justification for killing others in the name of God. And that is, of course, the tragedy what has happened in history.

It could have been a much shorter work, except the author painstakingly sets the historical scene – assuming that the reader knows little to nothing of the Biblical period. If the reader is expecting a book all about Satan, he may be disappointed. It’s more of a general history book with a particular emphasis. My only disappointment was that I had been hoping Pagels would shed more light on the influence of Zoroastrianism upon Judaism, as it looks very much as if the modern depiction of Satan originated with the Zoroastrian belief in the struggle between Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu.

This book is a non-sensationalist scholarly work that provides a massive challege to Christian theology.

Waking Up by Sam Harris

harriss-wakingupA couple of years ago I was listening to a debate by Sam Harris, when he made a remark about consciousness being the one thing that you absolutely cannot declare is an illusion, because consciousness is the very ground from which you come to know everything else. This was not the sort of thing you hear from a typical atheist; atheists tend to be materialists who do their best to ignore the profound mystery of consciousness.

I was similarly delighted to learn about the publication of this book, subtitled “A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion.” Sounds right up my street. Harris has been a long-term meditator. He has spent time studying under eastern gurus in the past, and has also dabbled in psychoactive drugs. The book is part memoir, part science (neuroscience in particular), and part how-to manual on meditation and its benefits. The one thing it lacks (by Harris’s own admission) is metaphysical speculation. This is unfortunate, because it means that the kind of “spirituality” Harris refers to is rather weak, little more than the use of altered states of consciousness to improve psychological wellbeing. Harris, like most atheists, subscribes to materialism. Unfortunately, he doesn’t acknowledge that materialism is also metaphysical speculation. A little inductive thinking is more than called for when attempting to discern whether the prime reality consists of matter or mind (or indeed something else).

The book will no doubt prove to be divisive among his main audience (atheists), but it will hopefully get many of them thinking seriously about consciousness. As a result of our Christian heritage, we’re all mind-body dualists, but few of us realise this. Instead, we blindly think of ourselves as literal psyches inhabiting bodies. While consciousness is not an illusion, the view of consciousness as an entity sitting between the eyes most definitely is. This is difficult conditioning to overcome, and many are not even aware of it as an issue.

Harris is mostly clear and accurate in his writing, but I did find myself confused in places by the language he chose to employ. When he talks about “the illusion of the self,” it almost seemed like he was denying the reality of consciousness itself. Then I learned to interpret his use of the word “self” to mean “self as a distinct mind/soul” rather than “self in the abstract” (if that makes any sense).

The book tackles some related side-issues, such as the moral failures of guru figures, why Buddhism is better than monotheistic religions, the value and danger of psychedelics, the validity of near-death experiences. All interesting material. There are better books on meditation and spirituality, such as the work of Alan Watts. Harris, I feel, falls for the trap of using meditation as a technique to escape from ordinary consciousness into a state of blissful wellbeing. This is based on the faulty understanding that ordinary states of consciousness are somehow broken. And this is a close cousin to the religious notion that mankind must be repaired from a metaphysical fall from grace. This is a connection that Harris doesn’t see. Without relying on meditation at all, I’ve come to a much more profound realisation that consciousness, in its natural state, is not broken in any way. And so, I don’t experience any of the striving that Harris’s book is preoccupied with.

Nevertheless, Waking Up is a most welcome addition to a growing body of literature on esoteric spirituality, not because it’s especially brilliant, but because of who Harris is and who he has the power to influence.

The Year of the Comet by John Christopher

chistopherj-yearofthecometThis is the first novel by science fiction author John Christopher (although he did publish a short story collection before this), who is most famous for The Death of Grass and The Tripods. He wrote a number of disaster novels, and the title of the book under review would lead you to believe that this is one of them. But it’s not. The story is set in a post-capitalist future where countries have been replaced by huge corporations known as “managerials.” They have names like Telecom, Atomics, etc. Each managerial provides an essential role in the running of the world. The life of a seemingly average scientist called Charles (our protagonist) is thrown into chaos when he finds that his research into diamonds is being very closely monitored. He is soon tossed into a confusing world of kidnapping, murder, and conspiracy. His seemingly unimportant research appears to be of immense value to the various managerials, for reasons that prove to be world transforming. In the background of the story we have the Cometeers, a curious religious cult who are focused on the slow approach of a comet to earth.

For a novel written in the 1950s, the story is quite prophetic in its prediction of the rise of television into a forum of banal entertainment that people consume in a zombie-like fashion. It could also be argued that the replacement of countries by corporations is a legitimate possibility. We already have vast multi-national corporations that are free to operate outside of any one particular country’s laws.

As entertainment, the novel was average. It definitely had its moments of tension and mystery, but there was a distinct lack of conflict going on for much of the story and I felt my attention waning. It looks as if Christopher had some political ideas he wanted to express, and he used a fictional narrative as a vehicle for that.

Perv: The Sexual Deviant in All of Us by Jesse Bering

beringj-pervPsychologist Jesse Bering first hit my radar in 2012, when I saw an interview with him conducted at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas 2012 (see below). In this he talks about the case of an unfortunate young teenager who discovered his father’s medical textbook. This book featured nude photographs of women, which the boy used to aid his first attempts at masturbation. However, these women also happened to be amputees. One can understand how the boy may have been able to feel excitement at witnessing the forbidden areas of a woman’s body while also being able to disregard the missing limbs. However, if you know something about the unconscious mind, it tends to forge associations without us being aware of it. This is how the boy ended up with what is termed paraphilia – a sexual attraction towards something outside of the bounds of what is usually considered sexual. And he was seemingly stuck with it for life. Odd as it sounds, amputees turned him on more than full-bodied women.

This is a prime example of how sexual “deviancy” can occur quite accidentally, and have nothing to do with anything immoral or evil. Most teenagers do discover masturbation, except most of them aren’t so unlucky in their choice of erotic stimulation. The question is: how much of what we consider sexually immoral really stems from something that is genuinely morally unacceptable? Unfortunately, the values of polite society tend to view all paraphilia as cause for ethical concern, when they are usually harmless.

Jesse Bering has written a book that tackles paraphilia head on. It is written in a conversational style, with plenty of humour, but also succeeds in being informative. If there is one overall message, it is “Lighten up.” Paraphilias are really not that big a deal, for the most part. The one exception to this might be paedophilia, but even here Bering takes the daring stance of refusing to mimic the demonising stance of the mass media. There is no doubt that actual child abuse is horrific and unacceptable. But one side of this story that is not often heard is the testimony of the closet paedophile, who feels attracted to children but who also feels disturbed about this attraction, who doesn’t understand why he is the way he is, and who goes through life harbouring this dark secret and harming no one. If you’re willing to be dispassionate and objective about hot topics, this book will definitely challenge your preconceptions.

Sexuality is a part of human nature that we’ve only recently started coming to terms with. Over the past century or so, there has definitely been a gradual movement away from repression towards a more balanced and scientific understanding of this part of our lives. The first thirty-five years of my life were filled with a great deal of confusion about sex, thanks to unrealistic Christian ideals. In retrospect, I think a healthy outlook on sexuality is measured by how effectively you manage to ignore the prevailing cultural norms. Thankfully, we now have a growing body of literature to help us navigate these dangerous waters, to get us to the place where we can integrate our sexuality into our lives in a sane, healthy way. Jesse Bering’s Perv comes highly recommended in that regard.

The assumption of the book is that there is a sexual deviant in all of us. This is a statement about the malleability and diversity of sexuality, not a condemnation of the entire human race. How about you? Are you ready to face up to the aspects of your own sexuality that have surprised or disturbed you? With the help of this book, you might actually end up laughing about it.

The attitude of the Christian masses towards sexual minorities has tended to be one of condemnation and a lack of empathy. As rational people come to understand sexually better, instead of relying on the outdated dogmas of a two-thousand-year-old religious text from the near east, then I think we’re going to see a gradual shift towards greater compassion and tolerance. The sooner, the better.

There Is No God and He Is Always With You by Brad Warner

warnerb-thereisnogodEastern philosophy is sometimes erroneously criticised as denying the law of non-contradiction. You can understand why, given the seemingly irrational title of this book. But no contradiction is intended. Language is an imprecise thing. A word is a pointer to something; it is not the thing itself. And when the thing you are pointing to is something that transcends all space-time categories, then you’re in especially deep trouble when you attempt to define it. Such is the problem with the word “God.”

Buddhism has sometimes been called a religion without God. That’s only true if by God you mean deity. When Warner talks about his relatively mild childhood exposure to Christianity, his idea of God was of “a blinding light with a personality.” This struck me as a very memorable image, because there are many Christians who claim to have gotten past the comicbook image of God as a bearded grandfather in the clouds, but it strikes me that any attempt to personify the Transcendent inevitably leads to just the false image that Warner describes. When you make God a person, as all monotheistic religions do, you miss the point entirely.

Brad attempts to make the case that “God” is a useful and necessary word for Buddhists in the West to employ. It’s a way of using our existing religious heritage to our advantage. I can see the value of this, because the denial of the existence of God in the West tends to lead to a form of atheism that is entirely materialistic in nature. In fact, I wasted almost two decades of my life lumbered with this faulty assumption. Such “metaphysical naturalism” is emphatically not the Buddhist position. Buddhism recognises a transcendent reality behind nature, but it is one that defies all categorisation, as mind, matter, or anything else. So, one way to become aware of this third side is to use the word God as a useful pointer to the Ground of Being.

So the first part of Warner’s title, “There Is No God,” really means “There is no divine humanlike persona looking down upon the Universe.” The second part, “And He Is Always With You,” can be thought of as an abstract pointer to the reality of the Mystery of Mysteries that is holding the manifest Universe together. I’m in two minds about whether I like the title. In a sense, I think the words “with you” obscure the more fundamental truth of the absolute non-separation of all things, including your own identity from the whole.

But the content of the book is exemplary. Many of the chapters involve autobiographical material from Warner’s book tours, where he comments on local religious traditions in various parts of the world. I was delighted to see a chapter devoted to the Protestant and Catholic disputes of my own homeland, Northern Ireland. One of my favourite chapters was called “Enlightenment Porn.” You know how pornography teases you with all the magnificant superheated sex that you’re never going to have? Well, enlightenment porn is what the typical spiritual guru projects at you; he wants you to believe that his eternally unperturbed consciousness is something that you can have, too (for a fee). But it’s a lie, of course.

I have now read all of Brad Warner’s books (well, I’m still looking out for Gill Women of the Prehistoric Planet – I kid you not!). He continues to be a writer that is accessible to the average IQ, intellectually profound, and deeply honest. Personally, I think of him as the spiritual successor to Alan Watts.

The Way of Zen by Alan Watts

wattsa-wayofzenZen Buddhism has become an object of fascination for me in recent years. Fascinating because my personal philosophy happens to be highly compatible with the philosophical underpinnings of Buddhism: the realisation that there is no individual self distinct from the Universe. Buddhism, in contrast to Western religions, seems to offer more of an experiential spirituality than a set of dogmas. It’s an approach of “Do x, and y will happen.” Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism, appears to be just a regular guy who realised something deep and profound about life; he is not a saviour figure to be worshipped, the way that Christians worship Jesus.

This little book helped to give me greater clarity about the Buddhist pratice of “seated meditation” called zazen – what the specifics of the posture are for, and what the practitioner can hope to achieve (or not achieve) through sustained pactice. Unfortunately, thus far, I have been far too lazy to meditate on a regular basis. But if all this reading has done one thing for me, it’s to make me much more aware of the general “toxicity” of my mind, and what I can do about it.

The Way of Zen also provides some useful historical anecdotes on the origins of Buddhism. A thoroughly enjoyable and enlightening read – which is no surprise when it comes to Alan Watts, a consistently brilliant writer and lecturer.