Tag Archives: sci-fi

Qui-Gon Jinn, most Quakerly Jedi?

I’ve been saying for years that I think Qui-Gon Jinn, as well as being the most important character in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace and probably the most likeable character in the prequel trilogy, is the most Quakerly Jedi in the Star Wars universe. I’ve just read Claudia Gray’s new novel, Master & Apprentice, and I think it proves me right.

Before I go any further, let me clarify the limitations of my claim. I’m not arguing that the Jedi are Quakers, or that Qui-Gon Jinn is a Quaker. Jediism, both as a fictional faith and a real one, has both significant commonalities and differences with Quakerism: Jedi and Quakers both like being calm and aware of their connectedness with the world; fictional Jedi often use violence while Quakers usually reject it; real Jedi usually adopt that faith as adults, like most Quakers today; Quakers have at least a historical connection to Christianity and often a role for Jesus in their spirituality, while Jedi don’t (counter-arguments involving members of the Skywalker family on a postcard, please); and there are more nuanced cases – in some other post perhaps I’ll compare the minister/elder system used by the Valiant Sixty with the master/apprentice structure.

The Jedi are not Quakers. Some of the Jedi are deeply unQuakerly – and not just the ones who become Sith, but also those who accept the status quo, use violence before other methods, and support their political leaders in immoral courses of action.

That said, there are general similarities between some aspects of the Jedi way and some parts of the modern Quaker way, and in Claudia Gray’s novel Qui-Gon Jinn becomes a spokesperson for them. I’ve picked out three short passages which will illustrate what I mean. There are minor spoilers in what follows, so if that’ll bother you, go and read it first. (It is worth reading: it’s an excellent example of what Star Wars extended universe writing does well with a great mix of mission-focused plot and character exploration).

In the first passage which caught my attention, Qui-Gon Jinn is talking to Rael Averross, a fellow Jedi (and fellow student of Dooku’s, cue ominous music). Rael has gone a bit off the rails before and during a long stay on the distant planet Pijal, and seems to be going further. Here (p124), he and Qui-Gon discuss the Jedi code.

It had been a long time since Rael Averross felt the need to justify himself to anyone on Pijal, but as he walked Qui-Goon to the door, he found himself saying, “You know, there’ve always been a few Jedi – let’s be honest, more than a few – who see celibacy as an ideal, not a rule.”

“I’m coming to believe that we must all interpret the Code for ourselves,” Qui-Gon said, “or it ceases to be a living pact and becomes nothing but a prison cell.” Which sounded nice and all, but was a long way from letting Averross off the hook.

Point one is another difference: Quakers have had different codes of sexual ethics over time, but have never embraced celibacy as a path for the majority, let alone something enforced! Point two, though, is a similarity about the relationship expressed here between the rule, the Jedi Code, and the way it is lived out. Rael suggests a difference between an ideal (presumably a good idea but not a realistic one) and a rule. Qui-Gon suggests that what matters is not so much the rule itself or the way the Jedi act, but the relationship between people and Code.

What’s Quaker about that? Well, it could be compared both to a traditional Quaker approach to the Bible, and to the relationship Quakers have with their own tradition. The first of these could be illustrated with an old but still much quoted passage from first-generation Quaker Margaret Fell, who became a Quaker when she realised that she and her existing church had not made the Bible into a ‘living pact’: “we are all thieves, we have taken the Scriptures in words and know nothing of them in ourselves” (link to longer quote with context). As a movement, Quakers have acknowledged the need for each generation to make the tradition its own. This is sometimes explicit, as in these words from Young Friends in 1926: “each generation of young Friends by its experiments must discover for itself the truths on which the Society is built if it is to use those truths and to continue and enlarge the work of the Society”. Sometimes it’s built into the practice, as in the ongoing process of revising the very book from which those quotations are taken. Like the Jedi Code which Qui-Gon follows, it contains rules – but it is meant to represent a “living pact” not a “prison cell”.

The next passage is from much later on in the story (p217). Qui-Gon has had a vision of the future, and has decided that although he will act on it, he won’t share it with his superiors, the Jedi Council.

Qui-Gon had not yet shared his vision with the Council, nor did he intend to. They would spend all their time bickering about the viability of the hyperspace corridor. They were too bound to Coruscant. Too bound to the chancellor. Too far from the living Force.

They were no longer the sort of Jedi who could trust in a pure vision.

It shocked him that he was that Jedi. That he could still find it in him to believe so profoundly, so unshakably, in pure mysticism. Qui-Gon had so often felt out of step with the Order as a whole, but never to this degree.

He had also never felt this close to the Force.

There are more differences here, of course. Although I know some Quakers who study and interpret dreams or Tarot cards, having visions of the future isn’t part of Quaker tradition generally. However, I think Quakers could easily come down on either side of the hyperspace corridor debate (it has political elements familiar from closer to home: questions about economic justice, access to transport, political representation, slavery, and the power of large corporations are all involved). And there is a deeply Quakerly element in Qui-Gon’s rejection of authority in favour of trusting his own connection to the Divine. For him that Divine is the Force, and it might be known as God or Spirit in traditional Quaker understandings – but Quakers use many, many words to talk about God and some of them are remarkably similar. I’ve heard terms like Energy, Universe, and even the Force used in workshops! However they understand it, Quakers seek to contact the Divine directly, not needing any particular person or practice to mediate their knowledge of the Divine. They can use a group process but also listen for leadings from the Divine – much as Qui-Gon does in this passage.

My final passage also comes from a discussion between Rael and Qui-Gon. (Another similarity with Quakers? Jedi in this book seem to discuss their beliefs mainly with each other, and mainly when they disagree, never explaining to non-Jedi characters!) Rael starts by putting a case that if the light and dark, good and evil, sides of the Force should be in balance, their actions are irrelevant (p259):

“…the darkness would be just as strong as the light. So it doesn’t matter what we do, because in the end, hey, it’s a tie! It doesn’t matter which side we choose.”

… “It matters,” Qui-Gon said quietly. “It matters which side we choose. Even if there will never be more light than darkness. Even if there can be no more joy in the galaxy than there is pain. For every action we undertake, for every word we speak, for every life we touch – it matters. I don’t turn toward the light because it means someday I’ll ‘win’ some sort of cosmic game. I turn toward it because it is the light.

One point here is that the language of ‘light’ and ‘dark’ is very popular with Quakers, even though it can be racist – and I think the Star Wars use, where light and dark map directly to good and evil, is also problematic in that way.

If we replaced ‘light’ with ‘good’, here, though, there would still be another similarity to Quakers: something which might be called idealism or working from principles rather than pragmatism. In a piece of research which involved interviewing Quakers about social justice work, I found they often mentioned the way in which a long-term, ideals-focused approach won respect from other campaigners. These campaigns are not run in order to win (although, as described in that link, there have been successes along the way). Rather, campaigns against war and for equality are based on a Quaker faith in the importance of doing what is good and what God asks.

Would Qui-Gon Jinn be accepted for membership if he applied to a British Quaker area meeting today? I’m not sure – at the very least, there would have to be a serious conversation about lightsabers and maybe a chat about gambling. But based on the evidence I’ve gathered in this post, I think that theologically he might fit right in.

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“Our Child of the Stars” – Quaker Narnia?

Our Child of the Stars, by Stephen Cox, is a sci-fi story about a couple who find themselves looking after a strange child – when a spaceship crashes in their town. (Disclaimer: I know Stephen personally and was sent a free e-book for review.)

Having read it, I’ve been thinking about it on and off anyway, and yesterday I heard a presentation by Centre for Research Studies researcher Jonathan Doering which brought me back to it. Jonathan’s research into connections between Quakerism and creative writing raises a whole set of questions about what makes a piece of writing Quaker or Quakerly or not. Is it the self-identification of the author? Does the opinion of the Quaker community matter? Does the content of the writing matter? (Did you know that T Edmund Harvey, Quaker politician, had a brother who wrote horror stories?)

The opinion I’m going to put forward in this post (comments are open for everyone who disagrees) is that ‘Quaker literature’ is most interesting when it has Quaker content – but that Quaker content is not necessarily things which name Quakers, but content which is inspired by Quaker approaches to life. My example for this is Our Child of the Stars. In Our Child of the Stars, although there are some minor explicit mentions of Quakerism, and the author is a Quaker, these aren’t the things which, in my opinion, make it interesting reading from a Quaker viewpoint. Instead, the key factor which makes this a Quakerly book is the way in which two people love and adopt Cory, a child whose strange origin and appearance make many others reject him – and do so before his charming personality has a chance to work on them.

In my title to this blog post, I compared the book to C. S. Lewis’s Narnia series, by which I probably just mean The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. The comparison is not one of style or content (although both a well-written in their own ways, and have some kindred adventure elements) – instead, it’s theological. If Aslan is ‘Jesus for Narnia’, a fantasy embodiment of Lewis’s theology of access to salvation, Cory is the ET-style embodiment of the Quaker principle ‘that of God in everyone’. In loving him and seeing him as special and worth protecting, Molly and Gene Myers provide a model of the ambition to see everyone in this way.

In doing so, they are often able to convince others to join them in this viewpoint. If only it were that easy in real life!

 

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A Past Future: chapter 29

You know how old science fiction tells you more about the time in which it was made than the future? I think Qf&p chapter 29, ‘Leadings’, is a bit like that. It was compiled for 1994, when this Book of Discipline was new.

Some of it stands, of course. Predictions about the future are about people, and people don’t change that much. 29.01 talks about walking with a smile into the dark – just as much of a challenge in any age. The situation in Northern Ireland has improved, but there are plenty of other places in the world where you can talk to the “men of violence” mentioned in 29.08.

On the other hand, a lot has also changed.

Some of the leadings which are seedlings in this chapter have grown and blossomed into flowers. 29.03 and 29.18 talk about what we now call sustainability. We have stuck with the inter-faith dialogue mentioned in 29.14, and this work has borne some fruits.

Some positions are clear and consistent but surrounding society hasn’t changed – at all, or in the direction we’d like. 29.09 talks about the arms trade – the technology has changed, but the trade is still happening and Quakers are still protesting it. 29.10 talks about not paying taxes for war purposes – but when I submitted my most recent tax return, HMRC provided me with a handy and horrifying graph to show that more of my money is spent on the military than the environment. (See Conscience for the ongoing campaign.) 29.12 and 29.13 were both written in 1987 – but the poverty they discuss is still very much part of British life in 2017.

Some issues haven’t been taken up by Quakers in the way the authors of these passages hoped they might be. 29.04 talks about the anti-vivisection movement: as far as I know, Quakers in Britain don’t have any united position on this, and while many would want to reduce animal suffering, many still eat meat, and I think most would accept that some medications are best tested on animals. As far as I can tell as a white person, the problems of assumptions about race and ethnicity identified in 29.15 are just as much of an issue now as ever.

Other issues which have been areas for Quaker discussion or even decision aren’t mentioned here. Questions about sexuality and marriage aren’t in this chapter (although they were, as I understand it, on the radar at Yearly Meeting 1994). Questions about gender diversity, assisted dying and end of life care, drug legalisation, and mental health don’t appear here, but have all been raised by meetings since this was written.

Which bits of this chapter do you relate to, and what feels outdated or absent?

Sherlock is Sci-Fi: the problem with The Final Problem

Last Sunday, the BBC broadcast ‘The Final Problem’, the final (at least for now) episode of their long-running and mostly very successful drama series, Sherlock. Lots of fans were very excited about an episode which had been described in its creators as making ‘television history‘. Quite a lot of other fans had already drifted away or watched the pirate copy which was circulated hours before the broadcast. Many fans who did watch were disappointed, and I found two very different positions interesting: some fans wanted more mystery solving, and other fans wanted more character development (read: queer romance). I think both forms of disappointment stem from a disagreement about the genre of the series – and of the Holmes canon as a whole.

You can be forgiven for thinking that Sherlock Holmes exists in a detective genre. He is, after all, a detective. He solves crimes – or sometimes mysteries in which no crime has actually been committed, or sometimes prevents crimes. However, I put it to you that ‘detective’ is actually a secondary genre. Holmes is an ameuteur of crime-solving. His real profession is the scientific method.

Conan Doyle based his character on doctors he knew, who specialised in picking up on apparently minor clues in order to correctly diagnose an illness. He has Holmes extend this scientific process to crime – and more or less created the discipline of forensics in the process. Today, it’s easy to forget that this was science fiction at the time, just as stories about going to the moon are now hard to see as sci-fi. There are places in the stories where we can see it at work, though. A particularly obvious example is The Adventure of the Creeping Man, in which [spoilers! although it was published in 1923] the injection of hormones from monkeys gives the patient some of the characteristics of a monkey. My core argument, however, is not just that some of the cases use sci-fi elements, but that Holmes’s method is fundamentally science fiction.

To see this, consider the way in which Holmes’s universe always seems to contain a very small number of possibilities. Why does this client have ink on her finger? She must be a secretary. Or have just signed a cheque. Or be able to write. Or have touched something in a shop on the way over. Or perhaps it’s a dark blue paint from her artist sister’s palette. But for Holmes, it must always mean one thing. Two possibilities are permissible if one of them can be tested in a suitably dramatic way. Seven would be merely inconvenient – but much more realistic.

How does this help us with understanding The Final Problem?  It has two implications. One is that, however carefully fans have ‘read’ the ‘clues’ in the canon, there are always possibilities which have occurred to the writers but not to them. This explains how some viewers were expecting ‘love conquers all‘ to be love between Sherlock and John – or Sherlock and Molly – rather than familial love (or, as Cumberbatch could equally well be saying in the quote at the bottom of that page, the love of fans for actors which might keep them watching even this episode).

The other, more complex, implication is that we should compare this episode, not with other detective stories, but with sci-fi stories. Imagine that this plot appeared as an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Picard, Riker and Worf arrive on a planet where an alien traps them in a peculiar system of her own devising in order to study their reactions to emotionally testing situations. They are able to escape only when Picard can prove his intellectual kinship with her.

It’s not an actual episode, but enough elements of it have happened on the show that I hope you’ll agree with me that it’s plausible. What would be missing is the actual kinship: on ST:TNG, we’re still working with the scientific method, something learned rather than inherited, however little actual science there is among the many handwaves and McGuffins and narrativiums which have been introduced in order to get us to wherever the plot can happen.

The Final Problem, then, treats the Holmes siblings as aliens. And this is where it makes a mistake – a mistake which fans of Star Wars will recognise as the midi-chlorian problem. Early on in the episode, when John Watson first hears details about the third Holmes child, he asks whether she also has “the deduction thing”. The Holmes siblings have it. Others don’t. It might as well be a superpower produced by a mutation of the X gene for all the explanation of it we are given, and this runs completely counter to the kind of sci-fic which Conan Doyle was originally writing.

(I think it would be fine for Dr Who, by the way, for those who are tracking Steven Moffat’s whole portfolio.)

Conan Doyle’s Holmes uses a scientific method – something which Holmes invented, but which can be learned, and which he can teach in small ways to Watson. He is helped by elements in his personality which Conan Doyle assumes are inherent, such as an excellent memory and keen senses, but the method of deduction is just that, a method. In stories about his very early cases, he is sometimes shown to be still learning himself. His older brother also excels at it, but because other people can also learn parts of it, we are left to assume that they honed it together. This isn’t absent from the BBC Sherlock – indeed, the Mind Palace which appeared extensively in the third series is a very good modern reproduction of the core principle: taking a real method and extending it to sci-fi proportions.

Euros is the opposite of this, though. With the three Holmes siblings together, and no evidence in all the discussion of their childhoods that they were taught or invented the method of deduction, ‘being very clever’ is treated as an inborn trait. To return to the comparison with Star Wars: in the Original Trilogy, we thought that being a Jedi was something you learned, because we saw Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda teaching it to Luke Skywalker. In The Phantom Menace, we were disappointed to be told that being a Jedi was something you could detect on a blood test.

The form of sci-fi to which Sherlock Holmes fundamentally belongs entices us in with the idea that humans could be better if we tried harder, or had the right education, or thought about things differently. It makes us want to use the scientific method – even if it’s only to analyse TV shows. The Final Problem lets us down when it treats the Holmes siblings as aliens and not as scientists, because it says that our genetic backgrounds matters more to our abilities than the lives we lead and the decisions we make. And it fails to live up to the promise of an important line Sherlock utters in an earlier episode in the series, The Abominable Bride: “Oh, Watson. No one made me. I made me.”