Thursday, April 12, 2018

A Blog Book Review by Bill Hulet: Daoist "Cli-Fi" -- a new cli-fi novel by Greg Ripley

Book Review: Daoist "Cli-Fi"

RT VOICE OF THE ELDERS - Aliens who call themselves the Elders offer to save the planet from climate disaster. But can they be trusted? This book defines a new CLI-FI genre. ➡ clifi

For anyone who likes my Daoism blog, I've just published a new post. This is a review of Daoist/Cli-Fi novel. Enjoy:


Last month I got an email from one of my regular readers asking if I'd be interested in reading a cli-fi novel he just published titled Voice of the Elders. When I answered in the affirmative, Greg Ripley (the author) @gregripley sent me a review version and I've spent the last month reading it in dribs and drabs whenever I had the time.

Greg Ripley
The plot revolves around a young woman, Rohini Haakonsen, who attends a youth conference on Climate Change at the United Nations. Totally unexpectedly, a representative of a mysterious alien race, "the Elders", arrives and announces that they have decided to help humanity deal with this existential threat. They literally "pop into existence" and "mind dump" huge amounts of information into the heads of various world leaders, engineers, and, scientists about how they can quickly "rejig" the world economy into one that is no longer dependant on fossil fuels. A nefarious industrialist---who is heavily invested in fossil fuels---organises a terrorist campaign against this transition, and, a secret Daoist organisation emerges to help Rohini and the Elders. Daring do, wisdom teachings, and, hints at future conflicts to be resolved in sequel novels are woven together into a pretty good piece of escapist fiction.


Eva Wong, (from YouTube)
"fair use" provision. 
The first thing to understand is that there is a tradition in Daoism of using popular literature as a teaching medium. The idea is based on the idea that "it's easier to catch flies with honey than vinegar". If you want people to learn about what you are teaching, don't bother with ponderous, hard-to-understand books of philosophy, just write an engaging novel that explains your ideas as part of an enjoyable plot. Indeed, it was with this idea in mind that the guy who initiated me into Daoism suggested Eva Wong (another person from my temple) translate Seven Taoist Mastersinto English. (I don't generally suggest that people read Wong's translations because they are usually horrible. But I've never found another English version of this book, so I've added the link.) Another, much longer, more well known example is Journey to the West. (This link is to the W.J.F. Jenner translation, which is the best one I've found---there are lots of really bad, abridged translations too.)

So the idea of writing a popular novel to explain Daoist ideas is not innovative but rather part of the tradition. Having said that, just how good is the Daoism in Voice of the Elders?

Ripley manages to work in a bit of lore from religious Daoism, including thing like a brief description of theThree Pure Ones and the martial prowess of the Wu Dang Shan monks. Even the name of the mysterious, alien "Elders" is a good choice---that is the what scholars say was the original meaning of the name "Laozi", who is supposed to be the author of the Dao De Jing. On the experiences of the characters, I cannot fault the author. He does a good job of explaining the psychological elements of "sitting and forgetting" and gets right some subtleties that an outsider might not. For example, he mentions the strong emotional responses from people that lead to uncontrollable weeping. In the Temple where I was taught, one of the staff people was assigned to provide towels to people when this happened---and it did. Even the stuff that outsiders might think far-fetched---like the secret international society---aren't as odd as you might think. Indeed, I once met a man who had been taught hung-gar at an early age by a secret society---"the Chinese Free-Masons"---in Victoria, British Columbia.


You may have noticed that I've removed all the advertisements off the blog. This is because the ad market for small guys like me has pretty much dried up. That's OK anyway, because I never really was all that comfortable with advertising in the first place.

Having said that, as I approach retirement and have added another "mouth to feed" to my costs, I am trying to access a little more money for my soon-to-be much less income. In addition, I now see myself as someone who is a member of the "creator class" on the Web, and I think I should "do my bit" to help create a culture where people get used to supporting the people who consume the art they create. To that end, I've added a Patreon button to the top of the right column. I've been using it on my other blog and have started getting subscribers. If anyone feels like they gain from my posts, consider subscribing for a buck a month---or whatever you think best. Feel free to buy a book or make a one time donation too. Everything helps.

One of the "creatives" that I support with monthly payments articulated something about this Patreon subscription model that I thought worth passing on. He said that people call things like Uber and Air BnB part of an emerging "sharing economy". That's nonsense, these are just businesses like anything else. But providing things through Patreon really is sharing. That's because people who can afford to pay support the opportunities of people who literally cannot pay to read the content. That's the difference between Patreon and a paywall.  


Fair Use copyright provision
The book isn't just about Daoism, it is also something that specifically sets out to be part of the "Cli-Fi" genre. This is an emerging literary genre coined by climate activist Dan Bloom at the Cli-Fi Report that integrates climate change into the world that book's characters inhabit. Another example is John Michael Greer's Star's Reach, where climate change has melted the ice cap, the Eastern part of the mid-West United States now experiences a monsoon season, Florida is under water, the South West is an uninhabitable desert, and, society is managed by Druid-like priestesses who enforce a strict code of law that provides for things like burying alive anyone who gets caught using fossil fuels. Octavia Butler's "Parable Books" (mentioned in my last post) also loosely fit into the genre.  In that universe, climate change has damaged the USA's society and strengthened Canada---which now has a militarily-defended wall on its Southern border to keep out illegal immigrants.

In the case of Ripley's book, the climate issue serves to create the plot in that the "Elders" are driven by concern about the future of humanity to actively intervene even though it isn't something that they are generally inclined to do. It also drives conflict by creating a motive for shadowy business leaders to fund a campaign of sabotage against renewable energy installations and terrorism against any humans who are working with the Elders. Since a great many environmentalists do get a lot of opposition from big business, this is a perfectly understandable plot device too. Just in my own personal case, I've been called a "terrorist" in print, had lawyers threaten to take away my home and life savings through lawsuits, got death threats over the phone, and, caught private investigators snooping around my life. And, it certainly is the case that lots of environmentalists have been murdered for organising against collective suicide.


So while it is true that there is nothing in this book that either does violence to various teachings in Daoism, or stretches credibility to the snapping point (at least vis-a-vis human society), I do have some quibbles.

There are different ways of understanding what Daoism is all about. And some people put a lot of emphasis on things like "Qi", "meridians", "energy", etc. I can understand where all of this comes from, as I have experienced the sorts of feelings that people describe as "Qi", felt if "flow" through my body, and so on. It is also something that is definitely part of the tradition. But I am also a modern man who has a graduate from a competent modern university. And I believe that a lot of this stuff is simply---for lack of a long discussion which I'ved had in other blog posts---a lot of "woo-woo" that needs to be discarded.

I come to things from a very different point of view. My emphasis is on the more prosaic goal of becoming a "realized man" in the sense of dispelling delusion and gaining wisdom. My first meditation teacher explained this with a story. He talked about two disciples who were talking about how great their respective teachers were. One of them said that his teacher could hold up a brush on one side of a river and write on a piece of paper someone held on the other side. The second one said that this was nothing---his teacher managed to eat only when he was hungry and sleep when he was tired. (These are two skills that I have yet to master myself.)

I mention this point because as I see it, real Daoists would not be secretive or use special powers, instead, they would be inherently invisible to outside society because the vast majority of people wouldn't have the categories of thought necessary to process the information that they are seeing. Let me illustrate with a martial art called capoeira. For those of you who don't know, capoeira is a martial art native to Brazil and which incorporates a lot of African dancing and music into it. It really is very different from the Chinese or European martial arts. Let me explain to you how I see things when my viewpoint is informed by the small amount of Daoism that I have learned over my life.


Here's a video of "the money game" and something I think is called "the urban ritual" (I'm far from knowing much about capoeira.) Pay really close attention to the first minute or so and you will notice that there is a small bit of folded paper money on the floor of the gym. Watch how the two men go through their movements on the floor and one the fellow maneuvers the other guy away from the money so he can pick it up with his teeth.

What has happened is that there was a strictly strategic competition between two people to gain access to a specific location without making yourself vulnerable to a counter-attack by your opponent.

The majority of the demonstration is something called "the urban ritual". I don't know how capoeira explains this, but it seems obvious to me that what is happening is a very involved exercise in learning how to adapt to the tempoand balance of another person. As such, it is much like the "push hands" of taijiquan. In retrospect, it makes sense that a martial art that comes with African roots and which is practiced in time to music accompaniment would put a huge emphasis on tempo.

So what has all of this got to do with Daoism and Voice of the Elders? Well, I'd suggest that if real "super Daoists" were to intervene into world society in order to prevent an ecological holocaust they'd use some sort of subtle mechanism that ordinary people are pretty much oblivious to---like the tempo that capoeira teacher uses to win the "money game" or show off during the "urban ritual".

Instead, Voice of the Elders uses Daoism as a "back drop" for a fairly conventional "spy thriller" in the same vein as a Tom Clancy novel. There is a lot of flying around the world. Gangs of mercenaries attack secret bases. People are killed. The plot is developed by focusing on the psychological quirks of individual law enforcement officers. So forth and so on.


Of course, I'm not being particularly fair to Greg Ripley. A novel isn't a book of philosophy and if you are going to write something that appeals to the general public an author has to use the same tropes that exist in every other novel in the genre. Greg knows what these are and plays them like a pro. These include:

  •  The rich benefactor (loosely based on Jackie Chan) who provides the private plane that jets people from New York to the Daoist Temple in Chinese hinterland. 
  • The well-trained secret agent body guard with a heart of gold who's assigned to watch over Rohini.
  • The magic mysterious "oriental monk".
  •  The "good Czar" who understands when all the petty bureaucrats don't, in the form of the US president. 
  • The magic space bats (ie: the Elders) who can fix all the world's problems by intervention.
Indeed, it could be argued that Ripley is simply using the "Dao" of publishing to get his ideas out there. If he didn't use these tropes, then he'd never get anyone to publish or read his book. 

And that is the dilemma authors always face. How can I give readers what I have to offer in a way that they will actually want to receive?  You always have to make a choice between conforming to what the market wants so much that you have to water down the message you are trying to make;  or;  being so true to your beliefs that almost no one is interested in what you have to offer. And being able to make this choice already assumes that you have something useful to say and are a good enough writer to express it well---which pretty much excludes most people in the first place. That is why many years ago a friend told me "Writing is very easy. You just smash your head on the keys of your typewriter until the blood comes forth and makes words on the page."

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