Nightmares of the Future: Escape from the Prison Planet

Earth: a Prison Planet. A planetary panopticon where the convicts happily write their own police files and track their own movements, sharing them with the Stacks [Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon and Microsoft]. As will be explored in detail in this post, through understanding this, and planning a planetary jailbreak, a bright green future may await the escapees; and those that were built to hunt us down may lead the way.

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Spoiler Warning: key aspects of the current season of Person of Interest are shown and discussed below.


Preface

Narratives involving cities or countries split into Exclusion Zones are a popular part of contemporary science fiction films and TV shows. From Monsters, and its plot of a North America divided following a panspermic alien invasion at the start of this decade, through to the new series Cleverman where "The Zone is all at once an exclusion area, a prison, a refugee camp, a refuge, a camp, and a ghetto." The TV shows Colony and Containment being two other obvious examples.


Monsters (2010)


Colony (2016)


Containment (2016)

The idea of the Zone stretches back into the 20th Century of course, to the book Roadside Picnic via the film Stalker and made real by the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. The Zone the Strugatsky brothers wrote of was a dream-like, magical place. The Zones audiences are watching today are the stuff of nightmares - and the building blocks of a Prison Planet.

This is the nature of the post-cyberpunk condition. What was previously a utopian dream - we're talking about the Internet in particular here - has become an ever-increasing dystopic nightmare. But to opt out is to lose your voice in the global conversation, and the chance to plant the seeds of change; even if those seeds grow into nothing more than dank memes - retweeted and forgotten. What is to be done?

As science fiction writer and futurist David Brin recently advised, in essence - get thee a narrative that can do both:

You don't have to choose! Between pessimism and optimism, that is. A sane person uses dollops of both - simultaneously - to help navigate a path ahead. Because making a better world requires two phases. First finding the errors, snake-pits, land mines and quicksand that lie in wait, as we charge into the future. Those dangers are best revealed by eager complainers shouting “look out, you fools!” It is the supreme value of reciprocal criticism -- and science fiction has played a role, by issuing very effective self-preventing prophecies.”

And that's the point of this post, to act as a "self-preventing prophecy" - to take a tour through the construction project that is the nascent Prison Planet we all occupy, that it might then never come to exist. This will start by examining the commonality between the real-life origins of the space age in 19th Century Russia and the fictional future the Scottish writer Iain M. Banks imagined in his Culture novels. We then move into the present, leaning on the TV series Person of Interest to explain our post-cyberpunk condition - and how it ties into the effects of climate chaos and war - and see how distressingly close the Terminator universe is to being realised. With that understanding established, we'll visit some previous times in history people have attempted to flee the Empire, and learn that this place has its own pseudo-nation - and make some extrapolations about its application today in the "never offline" world.

The film The Matrix was in part a depiction of Philip K. Dick's idea of the Black Iron Prison. The heroes journey the Wachowski sisters gave us started with Neo's seeking to understand the true nature of his life and free his mind. That goal is repeated in this post. See you on the other side.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2

Introduction

A few years ago Benedict Singleton wrote an essay, Maximum Jailbreak, that significantly changed my perspective on humankind's multi-century project to spread beyond the planet we call home. In it he explains just who the Russian Cosmists of the late 19th Century to early 20th Century were, what their legacy is, and how that project maps onto the current area of thinking known as Accelerationism.

Singleton neatly summarises the Cosmist worldview with three phrases: "Storm the heavens", "Conquer Death" and "the Earth is a trap." It's that third phrase that we'll be focusing on here to help frame an elaboration of Earth's potential looming future as a Prison Planet.

...this is the characteristic gesture of cosmism, what we might call the “cosmist impulse”: to consider the earth a trap, and to understand the common project of philosophy, economics, and design as being the formulation of means to escape from it: to conceive a jailbreak at the maximum possible scale, a heist in which we steal ourselves from the vault. [Maximum Jailbreak]

As he continues to elaborate - looking at traps as a form of design thinking - there's a coevolution of intelligence at work between predator and prey; between the hunter and the hunted:

It’s a knowledge of traps and how they function that enables one most easily to undo a trap that one is in: a talent for escape is predicated on the same intelligence that goes into entrapment—indeed, in the example of the traps that people set for each other, it’s clear that—as Hyde puts it—“nothing counters cunning but more cunning.” To outfox is to think more broadly, to find the crack in the scheme, to stick a knife into it, and to lever it open for new use. Freighting the environment with a counter-plot is the best device for escaping the machinations in which one is embroiled: a conversion of constraints into new opportunities for free action, technological development as a kind of Hydean accelerationism. [Maximum Jailbreak]

Escaping the trap of Prison Planet will require cunning: most immediately by understanding that it's already well under construction, and crucially, that it may be the impetus for us to fulfill the Cosmists' vision.

That the Prison itself contains the pieces required to not just defeat it, but craft a much better future. Just as the cliche of the inmate using sheets to make a rope and a spoon to dig a tunnel, the things that would be used to contain us may become the instruments of our salvation.

As an event in this alternative history of design, cosmism arrives as a kind of absolutization of its basic principles into a project of generalized escapology... If design is a hustle, then cosmism is the long con—or perhaps more precisely, the most extravagant gesture of lengthening the hustle into a con: not simply an aggregation of hustles—a chain of coin-tricks, each self-sufficient, without bearing on the next—but a process of nesting them into a cultivated scheme or expanding plot, so that each gambit paves the way for the next. [Maximum Jailbreak]

This post will form a bridge between the ideas examined in the Plutocratic Exit Strategy series and those earlier outlined in as an Atemporal People's Republic. Between an Earth where the freedom of movement of 99.99% of humanity is increasingly restricted and every activity and thought monitored - just as the 0.01% are poised to storm the heavens - and a space-based republic where all of humanity is just a fraction of the population of its citizenry; where AIs and Uplifted animals are ... Read More »

Was Prince an 'Acquired Musical Savant'?

Prince on piano

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In April 2016, the world was rocked by news of the death of Prince Rogers Nelson. One of music’s - or more correctly, modern culture’s - biggest ever stars, Prince was a man of small stature whose shadow of influence was mind-boggling large. Immediate musical tributes from fellow 80s icon Bruce Springsteen, Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour, country star Chris Stapleton, the cast of the hit musical Hamilton, and many others were testament to the respect the man and his music were held in.

For much of the public, Prince was a ‘star’; a hell of a performer who they might have seen playing guitar and piano in different music videos. What most musicians knew, however, was that Prince was - beyond his singing, his dancing, his band-leading skills, and his audio production talents - a skilled instrumentalist of the highest order, on not only the guitar and piano, but drums, bass guitar and more. Indeed, it is difficult for anybody who hasn’t played each particular instrument to truly appreciate how good he actually was.

It is silly to have debates about “was Prince a better guitarist than Clapton” or whoever - there are many ways to value a musician’s skill, whether it’s technical, historical knowledge, talent at improvising, or ability to play ‘for the song’ (among others). Let’s just say that Prince’s live band (on record, he often played all the instruments himself) was filled with musicians of the highest calibre - and if Prince ‘blind’-auditioned for each of the parts of his own band, he would probably have got all of the gigs based purely on his skill on guitar, bass, keyboard and drums.

The almost supernatural array of talents that Prince possessed are enough to have made many wonder as to how anyone could have assembled such a formidable skill-set - remembering that much of it was already fully formed at the time of his debut album, in his teens (go back and listen to his debut album For You, with tracks such as “Just as Long as We’re Together” sounding like an extremely tight band of talented musicians - but it’s all him).

Most accounts of Prince’s life put his skill set down to the twin factors of being a ‘functional orphan’ - he was largely abandoned by each of his parents in turn, and so is said to have spent much of his time playing music - who nevertheless inherited from those parents some serious musical acumen (his father was a jazz pianist, and his mother a singer). His unfortunate family situation - along with his extremely short stature (Prince only stood 5’2”) - are also claimed to have made him absolutely driven to prove himself to the world.

But could there have been an additional factor at work?

A Prodigious Musical Talent

Many people are musically talented. Many also become extremely proficient at their chosen instrument at a young age. However, Prince’s abilities, excelling on multiple instruments, verge on the spooky - the type of talent that gives rise to ‘down at the crossroads’ mythologies. He mastered a variety of instruments rapidly in his youth, to the point of being able to play all of the instruments on his debut album while still in his teens.

With his estate in confusion following his tragic passing, and his legendary control of material being posted online at least temporarily on hold, YouTube has been flooded with video examples of his wonderful talent (though how long they will remain is another question). Here are just a few isolated examples, among many: ... Read More »

Fortean Approaches to Religion

Frog rain

The following essay is a modified version of the introductory chapter to the book Damned Facts: Fortean Essays on Religion, Folklore and the Paranormal (available now from Amazon US and Amazon UK).

Intermediatism and the Study of Religion

by Jack Hunter

Over the course of four groundbreaking books published between 1919-1932,1 Charles Hoy Fort (1874-1932) meticulously presented thousands of accounts of anomalous events that he found documented in scientific journals, newspapers and books at the New York Public Library and the British Museum. In conducting his wide-ranging textual excavations, Fort uncovered impossible numbers of extraordinary reports of fish and frogs falling from the sky, poltergeists wreaking havoc on unexpecting families, spontaneous human combustion, unidentified flying objects, levitations of people and things, mysterious disappearances, apparitions, and so on.2

All of these strange events, according to Fort, had been brushed under the carpet by mainstream science,3 indeed his books were deliberately intended as an out-and-out affront to the scientific establishment, and in particular to the idea that science has essentially ‘sorted it all out’ already. Fort was not at all convinced by this, and his collections of ‘Damned Facts,’ as he called them, served as evidence in support of his suspicions and speculations. Fort obsessively catalogued these ‘Damned Facts’ on small pieces of card, which he stored in hundreds of shoe boxes in his New York apartment, ready to be unleashed in the wild processions of his books.4

Fort’s books would go on to become classics of ‘paranormal’ literature, and inspired others to employ a similarly ‘Fortean’ approach in their own work, notably including writers such as John A. Keel (1930-2009), Colin Wilson (1931-2013), Robert Anton Wilson (1932-2007), and Jacques Vallée, amongst others (some of whose work is discussed in later chapters ofDamned Facts). Fort’s books and approach were also the inspiration behind the founding of the famous magazine Fortean Times, which, since it was first published in 1973, has helped to keep Fort’s eclectic legacy alive.5

The original goal of Damned Facts was to explore what a Fortean approach to the study of religion might look like, with all of its associated anomalous events and enigmatic experiences. The book, however, became something much more diverse. The contributors to Damned Facts each offer their own unique perspectives and insights, and take us to places that we might not immediately associate with ‘religion.’ With this eclecticism in mind, then, what I would like to do in this introduction is to give a basic overview of some of Fort’s philosophical speculations on the nature of science, religion and reality more generally, and then to outline some of my own ideas concerning what a Fortean approach to religion might entail.

Intermediatism

Throughout all of his published works on the anomalous, Fort employed a philosophy that he called ‘Intermediatism,’ the basic tenet of which suggests ‘that nothing is real, but that nothing is unreal,’ and ‘that all phenomena are approximations in one way between realness and unrealness,’6 a kind of ontological indeterminacy. He writes:

...in general metaphysical terms, our expression is that, like a purgatory, all that is commonly called ‘existence,’ which we call Intermediateness, is quasi-existence, neither real nor unreal, but the expression of attempt to become real...7

Through the lens of this ontologically agnostic perspective, in which all phenomena take place somewhere along a spectrum between the real and the unreal, Fort was able to explore some exceedingly strange territory, unearthing phenomena that mainstream science had either refused to comment on or had rejected outright. Charles FortIn the process, Fort (often half-jokingly) postulated some intriguing hypotheses to account for his damned data, including, for example, the frightening idea that human beings are, in some undefined way, ‘property,’ and the equally bizarre notion of a ‘Super-Sargasso Sea,’ a mysterious place to which objects are teleported.8 Fort, however, often immediately contradicted and discredited his own theories, and is famous for announcing that: ‘I believe nothing of my own that I have ever written. I cannot accept that the products of minds are subject-matter for beliefs.’9 His agnosticism extended even to his own theories and ideas.

By approaching all phenomena as equally real/unreal, from the common-place and everyday to the most exceptional and far-out, Fort was essentially proposing a Monistic metaphysics, according to which all events, in all their varied manifestations, are, in some sense, fundamentally connected to one another. All are part of the same process of ‘becoming real,’ of moving toward ‘positiveness,’ and all give equal insight into the ‘underlying oneness.’10 Fort suggests that this oneness might best be thought of as a living system, perhaps as a cosmic ‘organism,’ maybe even possessing some form of purposive intelligence and agency.11 This idea was later taken up by John Keel, who suggests the possibility that ‘the earth is really a living ... Read More »

Nightmares of the Future: The Marsification of Earth

SPOILER WARNING: This post completely spoils the plot of the movie ALLEGIANT, the latest installment in The Divergent Series.

Much like the first post that initiated this “Nightmares of the Future” series, Deconstructing TRANSCENDENCE, this third movie in the Divergent series isn't a great film – which is disappointing, because I actually quite enjoyed the first two much more than other instances of the now well-established post-apocalyptic young adult film genre. We're talking about The Hunger Games of course, and stuff like The 5th Wave and Maze Runner too. The key point the film really serves to make is how played out that genre actually is now, at least its current form. Anyone looking to quickly cash in on it has probably missed the boat by now.

Yet what Allegiant is absolutely perfect for is to serve as an elaboration of the concepts core to the idea of the Plutocratic Exit Strategy that I've been developing - that the Elite are in the process of leaving behind a ruined planet and building their long dreamed of technocratic paradise on the Red Planet (or elsewhere). The film brings that all home; to Earth. It's a rather banal realisation of what actually lies ahead for this planet and its denizens in a century or two, if nothing changes course. For that reason, I have zero hesitation in spoilering the absolute shit out of this film to demonstrate just how this is the case.

Just watch the trailer: it's Fury Road meets Tomorrowland.

Perhaps you remember when I wrote about Fury Road's trailer here, asking of its world:

Is there another instance of humanity across the ocean, that has kept the high tech life of those that came before intact, but are dealing with their own set of uniquely horrifying problems? What is the geography of the end of the world?”

Mad Max : Fury Road slots disturbingly well into this filmic universe.

Immortan Joe could easily be made to work as a cult leader field-testing mind control techniques for the secret technocratic rulers of Earth, hidden away in their shielded, camouflaged cities, invisible tentacles of control reaching into every crevasse.

In the Plutocratic Exit Strategy series I have been sketching the idea a Technocratic Elite in the process of fleeing to Mars from an Earth whose ruined they've benefited from, establishing utopic technocratic colonies there. In the film Tomorrowland they've long been retreating to a parallel dimension to build their perfect world [Spoiler: it didn't go too well]. In Allegiant, it's shown they never left. They just holed up, and let the world burn. That's vastly simplifying it, so allow me to unpack it all now, point by point.

It's New Atlantis at the end of the World

In the 17th Century, Francis Bacon wrote a novel called New Atlantis that depicted his ideal vision of a technocratic community, hidden away on a remote island. He didn't actually finish writing it before he died; it was published posthumously in its incomplete form and has arguably served as inspiration for much of the Technocratic Elite since. The community of New Atlantis were free to pursue their scientific pursuits absent from interference from the masses, and its members would periodically walk amongst the Earth in disguise, gathering new knowledge to bring back. It's literally the prototype for a Breakaway Civilisation, as others have noted recently, and Allegiant might be its most perfect realisation yet.

As the above trailer shows, what the Divergent series' heroine, Beatrice 'Tris' Prior and her companions, discover upon escaping from the post-apocalyptic nightmare of a ruined Chicago is a shielded, highly technology advanced outpost for a technocratic civilisation. The brutal world she's known has just been an experiment overseen from without by these New Atlanteans. Worse, her nightmarish reality has been serving as an entertainment program for its citizens, who've been able to watch the entire drama of her life unfold like they're all ants in some glass colony. The post-apocalyptic Chicagoans are greeted as reality TV show stars by its inhabitants. That perspective on the life and death struggles of the bulk of humanity is a perfect rendering of how the Elite views the rest of the world. Like ants.

Or cattle. And as Tris quickly learns, she's been exactly that: the product of a breeding program.

The Technocrats are Eugenicists

On arrival at the technocratic output established in the old O'Hare Airport, Pris is informed she is the first 'Pure' to be back-bred from the 'Damaged' that are the bulk of humanity now.

For undivulged reasons in the film – maybe they're elaborated on in the books? - the blame for the breaking of the world is put on a period of time where the emergence of a genetically-engineered humanity went disastrously wrong. Some kind of transhuman civil war took place as people started modifying their children, resulting in not just the world being broken, but the bulk of humanity too. They're all termed 'Damaged', and are treated as sub-human; fit only to be experimented on; or, as we'll see later, otherwise interfered with.

The technocratic solution is to back-breed humanity to its original state, using experimental setups like the walled city of Chicago.

Now, anyone paying attention to the current science on the subject knows is total rubbish. Humanity has been in a constant state of evolution, and if anything is a mutant species; the result of cross breading between multiple hominid lineages. We're finding traces of ... Read More »

The Uncanny Vallee: Face to Face with a UFO Legend

The ride through the desert countryside is smooth and pleasant, and I try once again to take a shot of the arid landscape with my phone. It's my first visit the Southwest of the United States, and the novelty of the scenery feels almost dreamlike. Add to that the fact I'm riding shotgun with Greg Bishop, host of Radio Misterioso and author of Project Beta --who up until now I'd never met face to face, despite the fact we've known each other and interacted online for almost 10 years-- and that the two of us are driving to the 25th International UFO Congress, at the We-Ko-Pa Resort and Conference Center in Scottsdale, Arizona, to watch the Jacques Vallee --arguably the most notable figure in the UFO field living today-- make his first re-appearance at a public UFO event since who-knows-how-many years (last time he spoke at a public UFO event, he was literally booed out of the stage!) all while listening to Greg's curated collection of weird-ass music, and the surreality of it all reaches 'Fear and Loathing' levels; to the point I almost feel the pressing need to yell "we can't stop here! This is saguaro country!"

Well, the name of the game on this road trip is not Gonzo Journalism, but Guerrilla Advertising: One of the reasons Greg and I decided to travel to Arizona and attend the congress, was because we wanted to promote an anthology of UFO essays Greg had previously posted online on the now-defunct blog UFOMystic, which he's now self-published under the title It Defies Language! --Greg came up with the oxymoronic name, BTW, through the use of the cut-up technique created by William S. Burroughs, one of his personal heroes.

I became involved with It Defies Language! back in October of 2015, when Greg and I were chatting on Skype and I decided to show him some of the caricatures I'd doodled through the years of some of our mutual friends (Micah Hanks, Nick Redfern and others); it was then that Greg asked me if I'd be interested in doing some illustrations for his book, the same way Mike Clelland did for the late Mac Tonnies' The Cryptoterrestrials. Imagine you were the biggest Star Wars fan in the whole world, and then you received a call from J.J. Abrams inviting you to participate in the new trilogy. Of course he had me at 'Hello'!

Consider also how I was unemployed at the time and with nothing to do but worrying about my murky future, and you can see why Greg's invitation was a lifeline which helped me focus on other things besides my dwindling bank account and my self pity. He gave me absolute freedom and only made minor objections to my ideas a couple of times; in return I drew illustrations for every chapter, and even ended up designing the covers for the book. By then I was heavily invested in It Defies Language! and wanted to help Greg in any way I could to ensure its success. So when we learned Vallee was going to the IUFOC we saw it as the perfect opportunity for killing two birds with one stone: Meeting Vallee --whom he had been in brief contact previously, in a failed attempt to invite him to Radio Misterioso-- and attempting to have a private conversation, where we would give him a copy of the book as a token of appreciation; while at the same time preparing flyers, bookmarks and even a few posters I printed in Mexico, which we would use to promote the book among the other speakers and attendees.

* * * * *

Saying the International UFO Conference is the Comic Con of UFO-related symposia is a double-edged compliment. While it is true the IUFOC is the largest event of its kind in the world, its current number of attendees don't even come closer to what Sci-Fi/Fantasy events were gathering in the mid-nineties. And while those gigs keep getting bigger and bigger, it's not preposterous to presume UFO-related conferences are going the way of the dodo. On an article for New York Magazine in 2014, Marc Jacobson pointed out to the dwindling attendance and aging demographic found at the annual MUFON conference in New Jersey, "a far cry from the thousands who attended the MUFON conference in the late 1970s, after Close Encounters of the Third Kind introduced extraterrestrials to the mainstream moviegoer."

Where Jacobson was dead wrong in his piece, however, was in equating the disappearance of UFO conferences to an overall decrease of public interest in the topic, which couldn't be farther from the truth. As I pointed out on The Daily Grail's comment section, Jacobson failed to take into account the Internet's impact in the way people interested in UFOs go about finding new information. In the 70's or 80's, live conferences and the journals published by the civilian UFO organizations were indeed the only game in town when it came to getting the freshest news and updates from researchers; but in 2016, when you can find almost anything about the topic freely online, and researchers are regularly invited to podcast shows, many in the younger generations don't see the point in spending up to a thousand bucks and almost a whole week of their vacation time, so they can sit on an auditorium to listen to a speaker for 45-60 minutes --and without even the chance to press PAUSE in order to play a round of Candy Crush.

That's why online conferences and pay-per-view video streaming are more than likely the way these events will survive in the digital age; if at all. But here's the thing: When you come down to it, the reason why spending all that money and free time is worth your while, is because of what happens AFTER the presentations are over. Getting to see people in the field you always wanted to meet in person is something you will definitely NOT get from your laptop --or even your Oculus Rift.

On the list of people I'd never met before, there was for example ... Read More »

Mushrooms in Wonderland

Alice meets the caterpillar

by Mike Jay

(For more fascinating articles like this one be sure to like The Daily Grail on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter.)

The first well-documented hallucinogenic mushroom experience in Britain took place in London’s Green Park on 3 October 1799. Like many such experiences before and since, it was accidental. A man subsequently identified only as ‘J.S.’ was in the habit of gathering small field mushrooms from the park on autumn mornings, and cooking them up into a breakfast broth for his wife and young family. But this particular morning, an hour after they had finished eating, the world began to turn very strange. J.S. found black spots and odd flashes of colour bursting across his vision; he became disorientated, and had difficulty in standing and moving around. His family were complaining of stomach cramps and cold, numb extremities. The notion of poisonous toadstools leapt to his mind, and he staggered out into the streets to seek help. but within a hundred yards he had forgotten where he was going, or why, and was found wandering about in a confused state.

By chance, a doctor named Everard Brande happened to be passing through this insalubrious part of town, and he was summoned to treat J.S. and his family. The scene that he discovered was so bizarre and unfamiliar that he would write it up at length and publish it in The Medical and Physical Journal later that year. The family’s symptoms were rising and falling in giddy waves, their pupils dilated, their pulses and breathing becoming fluttering and laboured, then returning to normal before accelerating into another crisis. They were all fixated on the fear that they were dying, except for the youngest, the eight-year-old Edward S., whose symptoms were the strangest of all. He had eaten a large portion of the mushrooms and was ‘attacked with fits of immoderate laughter’ which his parents’ threats could not subdue. He seemed to have been transported into another world, from which he would only return under duress to speak nonsense: ‘when roused and interrogated as to it, he answered indifferently, yes or no, as he did to every other question, evidently without any relation to what was asked’.

Dr.Everard Brande would diagnose the family’s condition as the ‘deleterious effects of a very common species of agaric [mushroom], not hitherto suspected to be poisonous’. Today, we can be more specific: this was clearly intoxication by Liberty Caps (Psilocybe semilanceata), the ‘magic mushrooms’ which grow plentifully across the hills, moors, commons, golf courses and playing fields of Britain every autumn. But though Dr.Brande’s account of the J.S. family’s trip would not be forgotten, and would continue to be cited in Victorian drug literature for decades, the nineteenth century would come and go without any conclusive identification of the Liberty Cap as the species in question. In fact, it would not be until Albert Hoffman, the discoverer of LSD, turned his attention to hallucinogenic mushrooms in the 1950s that the botanical identity of these and other mushrooms containing psilocybin, LSD’s chemical cousin, would be confirmed.

But if they were obscure to Victorian science, there was another tradition which would appear to explore the ability of certain mushrooms to whisk humans off to another world: Victorian fairy lore. Over the nineteenth century, a vast body of art and literature would connect mushrooms and toadstools with elves, pixies, hollow hills and the unwitting transport of subjects to fairyland, a world of shifting perspectives and dimensions seething with elemental spirits. Is it possible that the Victorian fairy tradition, underneath its twee and bourgeois exterior, operated as a conduit for a hidden world of homegrown psychedelia, parallel perhaps to the ancient shamanic and ritual uses of similar mushrooms in the New World? Were the authors of such otherworld narratives - Alice in Wonderland, for example - aware of the powers of certain mushrooms to lead unsuspecting visitors to enchanted lands? Were they, perhaps, even writing from personal experience?

The J.S. family’s trip in 1799 is a useful jumping-off point for such enquiries, because it establishes several basic facts. First - and contrary to the opinion of some recent American scholars - British (and European) magic mushrooms are not a recent arrival from the New World, but were part of our indigenous flora at least two hundred years ago. Second, the species in question was unknown at the time, at least to science. Third, its hallucinogenic effects were unfamiliar, perhaps even unheard of - certainly unprecedented enough for a London doctor to feel the need to draw them to the attention of his medical colleagues.

In other scholarly contexts, though, the mind-altering effects of certain plants were already familiar. Through classical sources like The Golden Ass, the idea of witches’ potions which transformed their subjects was an inheritance from antiquity. The pharmacopeia and materia medica of doctors and herbalists had long included the drug effects of common plants like belladonna and opium poppies, though mushrooms had featured in them rarely. The eighteenth century had turned up several more exotic examples from distant cultures: Russian explorers describing the use of fly agaric mushrooms in Siberia, Captain Cook observing the kava-kava ritual in Polynesia. In 1762 Carl Linnaeus, the great taxonomist and father of modern botany, had compiled the first ever list of intoxicating plants: his monograph, entitled Inebriantia, had included opium, cannabis, datura, henbane and tobacco. Slowly, the study of such plants was emerging from the margins and tall tales of classical studies, ethnography, folklore and medicine and becoming a subject in its own right.

It was as part of this same interest that European fairy lore was also being assembled by a new generation of amateur folklore collectors such as the Brothers Grimm, who realised that the inexorable drift of peasant populations from country to city was beginning to dismantle centuries of folk stories, songs and oral histories. The Victorian fairy tradition, as it emerged, would be imbued with this new sensibility which rendered rustic traditions no longer coarse, backward and primitive but picturesque and semi-sacred, an escape from the austerity of industrial living into an ancient, often pagan otherworld. Under the guise of ‘innocence’, sensual and erotic themes could be explored with a boldness not permitted in more realistic genres, and the muddy and impoverished countryside could be re-enchanted with imagery drawn from the classical and arabesque. Within this process, the lore of plants and flowers was carefully curated and woven into supernatural tapestries of flower-fairies and enchanted woods; and within this imaginal world of plants, mushrooms and toadstools began popping up all over. Fairy rings and toadstool-dwelling elves were recycled through a pictorial culture of motif and decoration until they became emblematic of fairyland itself.

Fairy ring

This was a quiet but substantial image makeover for Britain’s fungi. Previously, in herbals and medical texts, they had been largely shunned, associated with dung-heaps and poison; in Romantic poetry the smell of death had still clung to them (‘fungous brood/coloured like a corpse’s cheek’, as Keats put it). Now, a new generation of folklorists began to ... Read More »

Invoking the Spirits of Place

On Saturday the 2nd of April 2016 Calderstones Mansion in Calderstones Park, Liverpool was home to #SpiritsOfPlace. This was a multidisciplinary symposium with nine guest speakers, all of whom took their cue in one way or another from the Neolithic stones which give the park their name.

Image

I was the organiser of the event and my talk "Invoking the Spirits of Place" served as a kind of introduction and mission statement for the day. Based in part on my earlier Calderstones article, a piece I wrote about the genesis of the event for #FolkloreThursday, and even in some small way something I wrote for WarrenEllis.com, I present here the full text of my talk.


Welcome to South Liverpool, to Calderstones Park, and to Spirits of Place.

South Liverpool is where I was born, where I grew up, and where I live still. It is a place full of green-spaces. Its abundance of woodlands, parks, cemeteries, playing fields and golf courses are linked by an intricate network of narrow, bramble-lined public footpaths and overgrown roadside verges. The more romantically inclined might be tempted to call them faerie paths, or corpse roads, and perhaps some once were; back when an Iron Age fort stood on top of Woolton's Camp Hill, or perhaps longer ago still.

The area is bursting with history to the point where many of its residents seem to have become immune to the strange sites and artefacts they pass every day. Many people are dimly aware that the ornamental lake in Princes Park is filled by one of the city's many “lost” subterranean rivers, the River Jordan. There is an extant 17th century chapel just round the corner from the same park where astronomer Jeremiah Horrocks was once schooled by a member of the Mather family who later emigrated to America and played a large part in the infamous Salem Witch Trials. Williamson's Tunnels - an uncharted labyrinth of vaulted, brick-lined tunnels constructed under the orders of an eccentric 19th century tobacco magnate - lay buried and largely unexplored beneath Edge Hill. There's a 15th century Holy Well in Wavertree, right next to a swing-park, which bears a Latin inscription translating to “He who here does nought bestow, The Devil laughs at him below”. Allthis is normal, commonplace stuff in South Liverpool, it seems. So much so that even more ancient monuments are sometimes taken for granted.

Robin Hood's Stone stands on the pavement at the junction of Booker Avenue and Archerfield Road surrounded by green painted metal railings. During term time in the summer months an ice-cream van is often parked next to it, ready to supply the kids from Booker Avenue school with frozen treats on their way home. Robin Hood's stone was given its name on account of a series of deep grooves in its surface once believed to have been used for sharpening arrowheads. The grooves are now considered to have ... Read More »

Review: Batman vs Superman

Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice

First things first: I’m not a huge fan of superhero films, though I’m not a hater either – my interaction with them is largely for the ‘popcorn’ reason of sometimes enjoying turning off my brain, taking a seat and watching kick-ass special effects and listening to big sounds. Perhaps my favourite recent film in the genre is Deadpool, which is basically less a superhero film than a piss-take on the entire genre.

Second, I don’t claim to be any sort of film critic. I do think I have a decent idea of what makes a film ‘okay’, vs what makes one pants - but what follows is less a proclamation of judgement upon Batman vs Superman, than it is a discussion borne out of an inexplicable fact that has me intrigued: that while the rest of the world seems to think this film is horrible, I actually quite enjoyed it.

Let me explain. Though never a true comics ‘fan-boy’, I’m a Marvel kid: I began reading comics with a number of Jack Kirby’s works, which inexplicably somehow made it to my aunt’s house in a rural area in the deep north of Australia in the late 1970s (his 2001 adaptation in particular is burned into my memory). I later got into the X-Men, and perhaps my favourite teenage comic book memory is the (1984) Secret Wars series.

While there was no shortage of DC comics available also, Batman and Superman never really resonated with me. Batman was too mundane, Superman was too godly. In both cases, I pitied the story writers who had to work with each.

What this should tell you is: I enjoy comics, but I have little knowledge of the D.C. 'canon', alternative histories or many other elements of this film that might particularly enrage a true fan who thought the film-makers diverged from core elements of the Batman and Superman mythos. And when it comes to voicing any positive opinions on this film, it's not exactly one that I've had high on my list of 'must-views'.

But it’s currently school holidays here, and a new cinema has opened nearby that finally makes movie-going an attractive option for my wife and I, so I booked tickets in advance for the whole family to go see the opening marquee film: Batman vs Superman.

And then the reviews started rolling in. Review after review, calling it: one of the worst, if not the worst, superhero film ever made.

We’re a busy family, so I seriously considered just not going and chalking the lost money down to a bad call. But then, the reviews for Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy were glowing, and I really didn’t like those films at all. So why trust other people’s reviews?

And as it turned out, as the credits rolled (and after a quick check there were no post-credit scenes), I sat there thinking: “umm, I kind of enjoyed that…is there something wrong with me?” With some trepidation, I asked the rest of the family their thoughts. My wife, not usually one for big budget smash-em-ups, voiced her approval. All three children (10, 12, 14) gave it a thumbs-up, with perhaps the biggest movie cynic of the three remarking “that was a great film”.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that. It’s got its share of plot flaws. Some of the casting was off for me, including the villain of the piece in Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor (though not the much-maligned Ben Affleck...in fact, in my book he probably goes the closest to nailing the Bruce Wayne/Batman combo of all that I’ve seen). The end boss-fight is an overblown mess.

But let’s also get this straight. It’s a comic-book movie, and I walked in with that knowledge in hand, ready for my popcorn enjoyment and little more. And I got the former, and plus more than a little extra on top.

So why are my thoughts completely out of sync with most other reviewers? This is ... Read More »

Hare's Eggs for Easter

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As the Easter weekend draws close, children and adults alike anticipating a chocolate egg binge, the internet is alive with articles on the "true" origins of Easter.

Over the last seven or so years the author, journalist and self described "pagan sceptic" Adrian Bott has written a series of detailed pieces discussing the myths and misconceptions surrounding the links between the pagan Eostre/Eostur and Christian Easter (this year's is actually entitled The case for Eostre, part 1: The Eostur Sacrifice). There's an interview with Adrian on the subject recently posted on patheos.com that's well worth a read and includes links to many of his previous Easter/Eostre pieces.

While I am by no means any kind of an expert in the writings of Bede or the religious festivals and beliefs of pre-Christian Britain, I feel there may be some tiny thing I can contribute here. There is one aspect of this whole debate that, so far as I can see, seems to have been largely overlooked (perhaps wilfully so on account of there being a fair bit of conjecture involved). That is that rabbits, or rather hares (which probably don't have any provable connection to Eostre) do lay eggs. Or at least, according to some, they were once believed to do so.

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Hares do not raise their leverets below ground as rabbits do their kittens, rather they build little shallow nests for them among the grass. These nests are called forms and look remarkably like the nest of lapwings and other ground level nesting birds. In the spring (around the time of Easter) in certain parts of Britain, it is possible to find forms filled with tiny baby hares pretty much directly alongside nests containing beautifully speckled and patterned bird's eggs.

So, there's a theory that someone long ago - some say it was European invaders who had never seen hares before - saw a hare tending its young in a form having previously seen eggs in a very similar looking nest in more or less the same location and came to the conclusion that hares (or rabbits as they might have thought them to be) do, in fact, lay eggs.

That kind of makes sense. Where's the proof though? Well, beyond the fact that it does sort of make sense, there doesn't seem to be very much. There are a couple of blogs on BBC Wales from seven years or so ago that mention the idea, there's a post on docudharma.com from around the same time talking about Eostre/Easter and dropping in the hare's egg idea. And that, so far as my somewhat hasty searching has found, seems to be about it.

So, am I merely muddying the waters of the already seemingly overly complex issue of the "true" origins of Easter and its associated myths? Quite possibly, yeah. It's all good fun though, eh? Pass the Cadbury's Mini Eggs, please.

Charting the course of Gordon White's Star.Ships - A PreHistory of the Spirits.

The first thing you need to know about Gordon White's Star.Ships: A PreHistory of the Spirits is that you don't have to identify as a Practitioner to find this an extremely valuable resource for understanding not just the world around us, in all its vast strangeness just waiting to be appreciated, but have a sense of humanity's epic journey across time and the stories its told itself along the way.

The second thing you need to know is that if you're looking for just an in-depth discussion of the book, go directly to the end of this post, where you'll find my 90+min talk with its author.

What I'll be attempting in this piece is more than just a synopsis of the book - I'll also situate it amongst both other recent texts and against the current mainstream worldview, to tell you just why you should be reading it.

Scarlet Imprint is a publisher intent on supporting practicing magicians, so it's perfectly natural that this is how they've pitched Star.Ships to their occult audience:

A defining text of the new magical renaissance, Star.Ships addresses the question of who we are now by tracing where we come from, and by drawing out the stories and the spirits that have journeyed and evolved with us. The goal is, as Gordon writes, the restoration of context.

To this end, White applies his globally-recognised data and demographics skills to realise a groundbreaking work of truly interdisciplinary research. Utilising mythological, linguistic and astronomical data to reconstruct palaeolithic magical beliefs, he maps them to the human journey out of Africa; explores which aspects of these beliefs and practices have survived into the Western tradition; and what the implications (and applications) of those survivals may be for us.

Written for a magically literate and operative audience, Star.Ships displays the flair, wit and engagement with evidence that adherents of his runesoup blog have come to expect from Gordon. He deftly handles vast time scales and cosmologies to build his case; avoids the pitfalls of alternative historians with a refreshing absence of dogma or wishful thinking; and, in a masterful deployment of the latest research, simultaneously questions outworn dominant narratives and is not afraid to champion the work of independent researchers and entertain forbidden discourses. It is exactly what chaos magic should be.

Göbekli Tepe, the Pyramids and Sphinx, Nabta Playa, Gunung Padang, Easter Island and Sundaland are some of the points spangled across a work of truly cosmic scope. Star.Ships beckons those who are willing to engage in the adventure to follow the great river of history that flows into and out of an ocean of stars. Minds will be blown.

Nothing in that description is incorrect, and I don't mean to come off here as critical of it; except in the more traditional (vs common) usage of the word. Because, to me, this is an important book deserving of a much wider audience that extends beyond occult circles. Star.Ships to my mind is an ambitious work that succeeds in helping to build something extremely important to - and largely missing from - our contemporary condition: a global narrative of humanity that stretches back thousands upon thousands of years, that breaks down the individual civilisational mythologies of Earth's nation states and helps see us all as one people that splintered and regrouped, repeatedly cross-bred and adapted, and told each other stories under the Moon and the Stars for a hundred thousand years ... Read More »