“Absolutism” in the Time of Climate Change

AboutAbsolutism-webOnce upon a time, there will be one absolute ruler who we, the people, call the Supreme Leader (May He Rule Forever). The Supreme Leader will hate immigrants, writers, scientists, environment and extinct species. We, the people under his rule, will be proud to live in our pure and glorious Motherland. Because we’ll have little to eat, no entertainment, no self-respect, no freedom, no rights, and no access to the outside world, we’ll be happy.

This is the ridiculously sublime scenario that underlies Absolutism, the dystopian card game developed by science fiction author Costi Gurgu and game developer/designer Vali Gurgu about surviving dictatorship.

A week ago, I invited Costi to my science fiction writing class at George Brown College to share his experience in writing and releasing his recent book RecipeArium (now on the short list for an Aurora Award). Costi also brought his new game, Absolutism, based on his latest novel Servitude—a near future dystopia.

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Playing the game at George Brown

“Play unfathomable scenarios of daily life in a totalitarian society. A funny game for people without shame.”—Absolutism

 

Emerging Dictatorships & “Servitude”—the novel

Costi described how he and Vali came to develop the game: “Based on current global political trends, some could safely assume that in the next 5 to 10 years some present democracies will turn into dictatorships. In Europe for instance, one third of the European countries have nationalistic parties winning their elections—UK, Italy, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia. France and Germany came very close. The United States is slowly sliding into dictatorship. Russia and China are no longer communist countries, like North Korea, but they’re dictatorships. They opened their markets to international trades because they saw the wisdom in making profits, but that was as far as they went with the openness. They still rule their people with an iron fist.”

We are now 7.5 billion people on the planet. As climate change (the ultimate dictator) exacerbates tensions over the unbalanced resource scarcities of our over-populated world, fear-mongering and absolute control of the masses through nationalism, isolationism, trade-wars, etc. will logically follow.

Costi and Vali first conceived a card game entirely based on Costi’s dystopian novel Servitude. But, they soon discovered that the game was too grim.

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Life under a Dictatorship—Ceaușescu

Costi and Vali had experienced a dictatorship first hand. They’d grown up in Romania under Communist rule, first by Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej, then under the communist dictatorship of Nicolae Ceaușescu. The dictator ruled for over twenty years before a coup d’etat overthrew him in 1989. Ceaușescu had ordered his military to open fire on hundreds of protesters in Timișoara, setting off the Romanian Revolution and ultimately his own execution by firing squad.

Ceaușescu’s totalitarian regime is still considered one of the most repressive in Eastern Europe. His Securitate (secret police) controlled the population through mass surveillance; they enacted many human rights abuses, censorship and relocation, and suppression of the media and press. Political propaganda infected all forms of education, art, entertainment and media. Non-compliant intellectuals were punished, arrested, or simply disappeared.

Inspired by the personality cult surrounding Supreme Leader Kim Il-sung in North Korea, Ceaușescu started his own cult in the Eastern Bloc by imposing a severe nationalist ideology. His policy of economic collectivization destroyed an already fragile economy and oppressed culture. Under the communist regime, thousands of books and magazines were banned and removed from public libraries and schools; intellectuals’ links to the West were severed; long-standing professional organizations were dissolved; and intellectuals, writers, and teachers were imprisoned and put into labor camps.

In Ceaușescu’s Systematisation program of urban planning—based on North Korea’s Juche ideology—whole settlements were demolished and reconstructed in the image of the state.

Ceaușescu made contraception and abortion illegal under Decree 770, and created incentives for high numbers of births—his idea was to increase the country’s population from 22 million to 30 million by the end of the century. By 1977, Romanians were taxed for being childless in a country already unable to house and feed its children. Sadly, this led to an increasing number of orphans, the highest infant mortality rate in Europe and the deaths of thousands of women who attempted illegal abortions. Orphanages were neglected and developed appalling conditions—most were concrete barracks in slums where many children suffered from frostbite, malnutrition and abuse.

 

“Absolutism”—the game

“Humor is your main weapon in fighting the victorious party and its minions,” say Costi and Vali. “Humor is the one thing that gives people hope and keeps the mental sanity of the masses in the face of oppression.”

And so “Absolutism” was born—a game of twisted strategies, irony and chance. Costi shared that with this game those who have never experienced dictatorship will have a taste of what it is like; the game will also remind those who have escaped oppression by dictatorship what they left behind and why their current freedoms are so precious and important to maintain.

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players absolutely succumb to the game…

“Maybe after playing Absolutism, people will see that Russia, China, and North Korea are not exceptions,” says Costi. They may realize that “absolutism is not something that can happen only there. It is already knocking on our door.”

Do you have what it takes to survive a totalitarian dictator with a twisted sense of humor? Or to be a successful dictator in the time of climate change?

Having played the game and lost—there is only one winner, of course—I can add that having a twisted sense of humor—is an absolute advantage in the game (along with an absolutely great set of bribe cards!). Thanks to my twisted humor, I was way ahead of everyone and well on my way to becoming the Absolute Ruler, when Costi charged in with a coup d’etat card and I lost all my cards; then the Secret Police rallied behind him and crushed any chance of subversive take over. Maybe next time…

“Absolutism” recently launched on Kickstarter and is still looking for pledges. Make a pledge and help make the game happen—we may never have a better chance at staring unscathed at the face of despotism.

 

nina-2014aaa

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist, limnologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

On Censorship and Intellectual Freedom…

 “He that would make his own liberty secure, must guard even his enemy from opposition: for if he violates this duty he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself. ”— Thomas Paine, Dissertation On First Principles Of Government

What Is Intellectual Freedom?book burning nazi boys

Intellectual freedom is the right of every individual to both seek and receive information from all points of view without restriction. It provides for free access to all expressions of ideas through which any and all sides of a question, cause or movement may be explored.

Why Is Intellectual Freedom Important?

Intellectual freedom is the basis for our democratic system. We expect our people to be self-governors. But to do so responsibly, our citizenry must be well-informed. Libraries provide the ideas and information, in a variety of formats, to allow people to inform themselves.

Intellectual freedom encompasses the freedom to hold, receive and disseminate ideas.

What Is Censorship?

Censorship is the suppression of ideas and information that certain persons—individuals, groups or government officials—find objectionable or dangerous. It is no more complicated than someone saying, “Don’t let anyone read this book, or buy that magazine, or view that film, because I object to it! ” Censors try to use the power of the state to impose their view of what is truthful and appropriate, or offensive and objectionable, on everyone else. Censors pressure public institutions, like libraries, to suppress and remove from public access information they judge inappropriate or dangerous, so that no one else has the chance to read or view the material and make up their own minds about it. The censor wants to prejudge materials for everyone.

How Does Censorship Happen?

Censorship occurs when expressive materials, like books, magazines, films and videos, or works of art, are removed or kept from public access. Individuals and pressure groups identify materials to which they object. Sometimes they succeed in pressuring schools not to use them, libraries not to shelve them, book and video stores not to carry them, publishers not to publish them, or art galleries not to display them. Censorship also occurs when materials are restricted to particular audiences, based on their age or other characteristics.

 

nina-2014aaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

The Forbidden Library

old-libraryImagine the place. Dark and subversive, oozing with ‘blasphemous’, ‘racial’, ‘offensive’, ‘obscene’, ‘Satanic’, and ‘anarchistic’ literature. Its librarian, Janet Yanosko, added her own pithy remarks to a long list of books that were banned for their offensive nature. Books like:

  • Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury: a book on censorship gets censored!
  • James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl: promotes drugs and disobedience
  • Where’s Waldo by Martin Handford: for nudity
  • 1984 by George Orwell: for being pro-communist
  • The Lorax by Doctor Seuss: because it criminalizes the logging industry
  • Zen Buddhism: selected writings by D.T. Suzuki: because it portrays Buddhism as appealing
  • Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut: for its foul languagebanned_books2

The irony is that The Forbidden Library seems itself to have found obscurity, joining the ranks of great ancient libraries that were destroyed … and silenced.

Books have been banned (and burned) on many occasions by many societies over humankind’s history of existence. Books considered critical of governments or societies with power were a common target. So were books that dealt with criminal matter or promoted views counter with popular worldviews, or were considered distasteful or disturbing.

The Bible, the Qur’an and other religious works were banned (and burned) over the years. In Medieval Europe, the Roman Catholic Church dealt with dissenting printed opinion through a program called the Index Librorum Prohibitorum (index of prohibited books).

I found a partial list on Wikipedia and share it here with you. I’ve bolded the ones I’ve read. How many did YOU read?

  • Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll: for portraying animals and humans on the same level
  • The Age of Reason by Thomas Paine: banned in UK for blasphemy in 18th C
  • All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remaraque: banned in Nazi Germany for demoralizing and insulting the Wehrmacht
  • Animal Farm by George Orwell: banned for anti-Stalin theme
  • Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain: banned in some U.S. schools for use of racial slurs
  • Bible: banned by the Index Librorum Prohibitorum in Catholic Church
  • Black Beauty by Anna Sewell: banned in South Africa for using the word ‘black’
  • Brave New World byAldous Huxley: banned for centering around negative activity
  • Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer: banned for sexual content
  • Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger: banned in some U.S. schools and libraries for sexual situations, immorality and other themes of impropriety and anti-Christian sentiments
  • Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau: banned in U.S. during McCarthyism
  • Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean Auel: banned because of hardcore graphic sexual content
  • The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels: banned in anti-Communist countries during the Red scare
  • Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak: banned in USSR for criticism of the Bolshevik Party
  • Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury: for issues on censorship
  • For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway: banned in Spain during Francisco Franco’s rule for its pro-Republican views
  • Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell: banned in part of U.S. because of the use of the word ‘nigger’
  • Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck: banned in some U.S. schools for use of the name God and Jesus in a vain and profane manner along with inappropriate sexual references
  • Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift: banned in Ireland as wicked and obscene
  • Hamlet by William Shakespeare: banned in Ethiopia
  • Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling: banned in some U.S. school libraries for use of witchcraft and supposedly Satanic views
  • King Lear by William Shakespeare: banned in UK out of respect to King George III’s aleged insanity
  • Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence: banned in U.S. and UK for obsenity
  • The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis: challenged in part of U.S. for depicting graphic violence, mysticism and gore
  • The Lorax by Dr. Seuss: banned in parts of U.S. for being an allegorical political commentary
  • The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury: challenged in U.S. for profanity
  • Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler: reproduction and sale is forbidden outside Germany, Austria and Netherlands for promoting Nazism
  • Le Morte D’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory: challenged in UK as ‘junk’
  • 1984 by George Orwell: banned in USSR for political reasons; banned in U.S. for being pro-communist and for explicit sexual matter
  • Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck: banned in some U.S. schools and libraries for promoting ‘euthanasia’ and for profanity
  • The Odyssey by Homer: Plato suggested expurgating it for immature readers and Caligula tried to suppress it for expressing Greek ideals of freedom
  • On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin: banned in various places for promoting the evolutionary theory
  • Paradise Lost by John Milton: listed on the Indx Librorum Prohibitorum in Rome
  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee: challenged due to racial themes
  • Ulysses by James Joyce: banned in U.S. for its sexual content
  • Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe: banned in southern States and Czarist Russia for racist portrayal of African Americans and use of word ‘nigger’.

book-burning-1682This all begs the question of what art truly is and should be. Susan Sontag suggested that “real art makes us nervous.” The genius of art skirts the edge of propriety and comfort to ask the questions that help us define our own humanity. Oscar Wilde remarked, “an idea that is not dangerous is unworthy of being an idea at all.” Benjamin Franklin suggested that, “if all printers were determined not to print anything till they were sure it would offend nobody, there would be very little printed.

Lillian Hellman, who was subpoenaed to appear before the House of Un-American Activities Commitee in 1952, exclaimed, “I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions.”

Live and write from the heart.

 

nina-2014aaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

When We Burn Books & Ray Bradbury’s Fireman

Book burning Opernplatz

Book burning Opernplatz

The burning of an author’s books…has always been the tribute that an ignorant age pays to the genius of its time — Joseph Lewis

In his 1821 play Almansor the German writer Heinrich Heine wrote (referring to the burning of the Muslim holy book, the Koran, during the Spanish Inquisition): “Dort, wo man Bucher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen” –“Where they burn books, they will end in burning human beings.” A century later, on May 10th, 1933, Heine’s books were among the thousands of volumes publicly hauled out and burned in the streets by the Nazis in Berlin’s Opernplatz (Bebelplatz). A violent outburst that did, in fact, foreshadow the blazing ovens of the Holocaust.Commemorative_Plaque_book_burning_Frankfurt_Hesse_Germany

Wikipedia defines ‘book burning’ as the “practice of ceremoniously destroying by fire one or more copies of a book or other written material.” The practice, usually carried out in public (like public hangings in Medieval times) is generally motivated by moral, religious or political objections to the material. Some notable and particularly destructive book burnings have included:

  • the destruction of the Library of Alexandria;
  • burning books and burying scholars (they mean ‘live burying’, folks!) under China’s Qin Dynasty (3rd Century);
  • Cathar texts in the Lanquedoc region of France in the 13th Century;
  • the Talmud in Paris by the French crown in 1242;
  • Arabic and Hebrew books at Andalucia, Spain, in 1499;
  • Servetus’s “heretical” writings along with the writer in Geneva in 1553;
  • Maya sacred books in Yucatan (1562);
  • Tyndale’s New Testament by the English authorities in 1525 and 1526;
  • Luthar’s Bible in Germany (1624) as ordered by the Pope;
  • Robespierre’s destruction of religious libraries in 1793;
  • anti-communist books by the Bolsheviks in 1917;
  • Jewish, anti-Nazi and “degenerate” books by the Nazis in the 1930s and 1940s;
  • Communist and “fellow traveller” books by Senator McCarthy in 1953;
  • The Satanic Verses by Muslims in the UK in 1988; and,
  • Harry Potter books in various American cities, 2001-2005.
Ray Bradbury copy

Ray Bradbury

In the 1967 introduction of his novel, Fahrenheit 451 (based on his novella, The Fireman), Ray Bradbury implied that the Nazi book burnings inspired his story. I found his statement both eloquent and powerful: “It follows then that when Hitler burned a book I felt it as keenly, please forgive me, as his killing a human, for in the long sum of history they are one in the same flesh.” For those of you who haven’t yet read his novel (one of my favourite books, ever), this cautionary tale explores a fictional future society that has institutionalized book burning in an effort by authorities to maintain order and ‘happiness’. In Bradbury’s fictional world, firemen don’t put out fires; they start them. The story begins with Montag, an ordinary fireman:

It was a pleasure to burn. It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed. With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of historyMontag grinned the fierce grin of all men singed and driven back by the flame. He knew that when he returned to the firehouse, he might wink at himself, a minstrel man, burnt-corked, in the mirror.”

bookburning-Opernplatz

book burning in Opernplatz

Bradbury wove a multi-layered political and social tale that followed one man’s journey to find his soul. Fahrenheit 451 explores the theme of intellectual freedom using censorship as his plot device. Montag is “everyman” who must make a choice for personal freedom at the expense of the “good censored life”. It is the choice all artists must make. In choosing freedom, we make an obligation to respect and tolerate those with whom we disagree; otherwise we are just tyrants and not really free.

fahrenheit-451-book-coverIn 1795 Thomas Paine wrote, “He that would make his own liberty secure, must guard even his enemy from opposition: for if he violates this duty he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.”

The American Library Association defines intellectual freedom as the right of every individual to both seek and receive information from all points of view without restriction. It also encompasses the freedom to hold, and disseminate ideas. Intellectual freedom is the basis for our democratic system. We expect our people to be self-governors. But to do so responsibly, our citizenry must be well-informed. Libraries — and the free internet — provide the ideas and information to allow people to inform themselves.

John F. Kennedy once said that “a nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people.”

nazi book burning2Censorship suppresses ideas and information that certain people — individuals, groups or government officials — find objectionable or dangerous. Censors pressure public institutions, like libraries, to suppress and remove from public access information they judge inappropriate or dangerous, so that no one else has the chance to read or view the material and make up their own minds about it. “Censorship … creates, in the end, the kind of society that is incapable of exercising real discretion,” said Henry Steel Commager.

When does simple disapproval turn into active disallowing; when does banning of books turn into burning of books?

I believe that censorship occurs when one submits to fear and insecurity: the bully being bullied and ruled by his own fear. Okay, we all fear; that’s only natural. We’re animals and fear is a survival instinct we all need and use. But, we don’t live in caves and hunt sloth anymore; that fear can be tempered by a civilized educated culture. Without the benefit of a nurturing faith and belief in the goodness of humankind, fear will lead to prejudice, racism and a general isolationist paranoia.

Winston Churchill said: “You see these dictators on their pedestals, surrounded by the bayonets of their soldiers and the truncheons of their police. Yet in their hearts there is unspoken–unspeakable–fear. They are afraid of words and thoughts! Words spoken abroad, thoughts stirring at home, all the more powerful because they are forbidden. These terrify them. A little mouse–a little tiny mouse! -of thought appears in the room, and even the mightiest potentates are thrown into panic.”

nazi book burning3

Book burning in Opernplatz

The danger comes when an organized group subscribes to a common fear. It is often driven by a charismatic leader, who has somehow captured that fear, harnessed its raging force then propelled it like a projectile. One’s anonymity and shared (and supposedly diluted) responsibility within the “mob” may compel the individual to commit irrational acts of atrocity he/she would never otherwise contemplate on his/her own. How many of us have been caught up in the mass enthusiasm of a sports match? We’ve all felt it; the power of the mob, its energy crackling in the air around our pounding hearts and cries. To yield to a mob-mentality is to subscribe to a condoned insanity, within which the ‘mob’ takes on its own irrational personality that is more than the sum of its parts…to become a kind of autopoietic entity that swiftly and ruthlessly dispenses its own perverse form of justice.

Perhaps for this reason more than any other, I see the artist’s path as a singular one, part of, yet apart from, the crowd. Neither leader, nor follower; rather, a wizard and a “trickster”, a shining beacon, both reviled and honored simultaneously. We are our books.

It was Victor Frankl, survivor of Auschwitz, who said, “what is to give light must endure burning.”

In her acceptance speech for a lifetime award by the NBA, author Ursula K. LeGuin said:

le-guin copy

Ursula K. LeGuin

“I think hard times are coming, when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies, to other ways of being. And even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom: poets, visionaries–the realists of a larger reality. Right now, I think we need writers who know the difference between production of a market commodity and the practice of an art…The profit motive is often in conflict with the aims of art…We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable; so did the divine right of kings… Power can be resisted and changed by human beings; resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art–the art of words. I’ve had a long career and a good one, in good company, and here, at the end of it, I really don’t want to watch American literature get sold down the river… The name of our beautiful reward is not profit. Its name is freedom.”

nina-2014aaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.