Playpen

Welcome to the Playpen, our space for ferrety banter and whimsical snippets of things that aren't quite long enough for articles (although they might be) but that caught your eye anyway.

at 05:41 on 17-11-2013, Michal
I sent an article in mid-October as well and haven't heard a peep, but I don't think anyone is really itching for a review of Matthew Reilly's Hell Island... If it gets lost in the shuffle in the upcoming months (or somehow got flushed into the internet ether already), I'll be happy to resubmit.
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at 05:40 on 17-11-2013, Alasdair Czyrnyj
Ah, so that's what's been up. There really isn't any time issue beyond wanting them up on the site before the year ends, but I would like the big one to get posted sooner rather than later. (It's kinda personal, and I do want to get it out there.)
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at 04:54 on 17-11-2013, Arthur B
The editor has been in the process of moving house since about the middle of October too, so rapid turnarounds are unlikely. (If publication is particularly time-critical let me know and I'll see what I can do.)
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at 04:40 on 17-11-2013, Alasdair Czyrnyj
Hi...um...I've had two articles sitting in the queue since about the middle of October. Just wanted to mention that.
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at 15:28 on 13-11-2013, Janne Kirjasniemi
I hesitate to characterize that process as "baby steps" because that to me suggests almost infinitesimal positive changes stretched out over gods knows how many eons

Yeah. I guess that's a nice term to use because baby steps are tiny, cute and unthreatening. Some things should probably proceed with a brisk adult stride, maybe even with some running at times. With the recent economical and other problems, it seems that there is a lot of radicalization going on in politic, but unhappily it seems to have gone to the nationalists and the economic right, perhaps because they have a better story to sell? It is so unclear what the next big step should be, even if the general direction is known.

On relativism and universalism, it seems the kind of dichotomy that seems to pop up from time to time. It's hard to form a third option, but that might of course be because of the framing of the question. I myself kind of think that people in general mean the same things when using ethical language, but that does not mean that we could make universal statements. But I think there could be some basic ethical premises that any rational agent would agree on. But in general, perhaps the third option would be that ethics are pluralistic and very contextual? I like meta-ethics, but at the same time it is very frustrating. Which is the point I guess?

Thanks for the recommendation, I like Le Guin too.

Today, I am sad that we do not have our own Shakespeare either. But on the other hand, if Shakespeare was catholic, which is a theory that I guess is as likely as several other claims about the dude, then the segment of population that actually can claim Shakespeare is very small. Middle class anglo-saxon catholics who can trace their ancestry to the late 16th century can't be a huge demographic, at least as a demographic of people who identify themselves as such.
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at 15:30 on 12-11-2013, Robinson L
Janne: in my mind, an utopic society would not come about by sudden upheaval, but by baby steps

Yeah, my definition of "revolution" is broader than probably most people's. I certainly don't believe in the efficacy of a revolution which follows the classic French model - a sudden political eruption which totally alters the landscape and after which everything is changed for the better. (Analogies have been made, quite fairly in my opinion, between this outlook and apocalyptic cults.)

I expect the process of building a decent society to take a long time - much longer than my lifespan. I hesitate to characterize that process as "baby steps" because that to me suggests almost infinitesimal positive changes stretched out over gods knows how many eons (it also suggests to me a uniformly upwards curve towards more freedom, equality, and democracy, whereas I suspect a more realistic graph would involve an upwards-tending curve with significant regressive dips backward along the way). I would put that vision at one extreme of possible revolutionary processes, and a sudden, landscape-changing upheaval at the other. The best course, I've no doubt, is somewhere in the middle; finding where in the middle is an ongoing project for me.

Parecon seems interesting. I've read some Kropotkin and Bakunin, but if you have any other reading suggestions, I would be grateful.

Well, I recently read Le Guin's The Dispossessed, which is already my favorite book of hers so far. It's a work of fiction, of course, and the community she depicts is not exactly ideal (deliberately so, it seems, and touching off of an earlier point of Arthur's, she shows how such a society could still manage to be quite coercive even lacking a governmental or state structure or organized violence). Even so, like Parecon, I find it a useful thought experiment, with a lot of positive as well as negative suggestions about an alternate form of society.

Solidarity economics is an interesting field with some good stuff going for it. It's not explicitly anarchic in outlook or organization, but as long as something looks like it has the potential to help us move towards a decent society, I could care less about doctrinally ideology (we're all likely to turn out to be equally wrong on such matters anyway).

Daniel F: You might be able to draw 'good versus evil' themes out of Christianity, but it hardly seems essential to me.

That was the part that bugged me most about the article: the implication that Christianity "depends on" the battle of absolute good versus absolute evil as some sort of central organizing principle. Certainly, many self-professed Christians presently and historically have seemed to adopt this view, but just as many have rejected it. (I speak as a fairly religious person of a faith which derives many of its concepts from Christian cosmological assumptions but differs markedly on such theological ground as the nature of God, the divinity of Christ, and other such trifling matters.)

I also get faintly annoyed at Space Jesus because of lazy.

Janne: I guess this depends on whether one is a moral relativist or a moral universalist.

I'm neither; a plague on both their houses!

Getting back to the article though, I personally didn't get the sense of it being strongly dismissive *shrug*. I did get a chuckle out of the part about Mormons being more inclined towards optimistic / uplifting fiction, which is more comfortable with genre fiction; whereas literary fiction tends toward the gloomy. Orson Scott Card's endings may be happy in the sense that good (as defined by him) tends to win out, but he's still included some seriously gloomy and pessimistic stuff in his books. Also, the author apparently hasn't heard of the emergence of grimdarkness in genre fiction.

The whole question of "Shakespeare" and literary merit and stuff reminds me of an old NaNoWriMo pep talk by Nick Hornby I recently read, where he points out that there is no concrete way to tell who is and is not a good writer in the same way as there is to tell who is and is not a good high-jumper. In the latter case, "If you knock the bar down every time, then I regret to tell you that you are not." In the arts though, there's no bar to knock down, no canonical set of rules to appeal too.

"Shakespeare—he was good, right? Like, officially? Tolstoy didn't think so, and neither did George Bernard Shaw." Whereas by contrast it's impossible to be an overrated high-jumper.

Not sure quite what that's apropos of, except that I wanted to set it alongside the article's underlying assumptions about literary quality.
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at 22:53 on 11-11-2013, Daniel F
Janne:
Well, not just fantasy, unless we count as fantasy things that go quite a while back, all the way to Milton, or Dante and all the works of fiction inspired by those.


Yes, of course. I didn't intend to exclude all other writing.

In that case the saviour is the source of knowledge, rather than a literal, active saviour. Of course it does get tricky with theology, so I don't know how near I've missed with this.


To my knowledge, the issue is that 'gnosticism' is not a well-defined category. There is no widely accepted prescriptive definition of gnosticism, and while we can make a few generalisations about most creeds that are labelled gnostic (wisdom as salvific, physical matter as corrupting, some sort of evil power that dominates this world as distinct to a/the true god, etc.?), it's a highly contentious field. I'm not well-versed in the specifics of Manichaeanism, though.

Dan:
When you say "a fairly religious person" (and if this is a personal question, do feel free not to answer it) do you mean "a fairly religious Christian" (and therefore Space Jesus bothers you because it appropriates something you consider to be an important part of your religion) or do you mean "a fairly religious [member of any other non-Christian religion]" (and therefore Space Jesus bothers you because it treats a central feature of somebody else's religion as a central feature of all religions)?


Fair question. Is it all right if I say both? I identify as a Christian; my church is historically Methodist, if that tells you anything. The 'Space Jesus' motif bothers me because I suppose I see it as lazy. I don't mind the use of messianic themes in genre fiction when done deliberately, but it does nag me when the Jesus motif is dragged in just because it's the default way Western culture thinks about heroes. The appropriation of the Jesus motif often strikes me as both potentially offensive and as intellectually lazy. Why should our literary world be circumscribed by attempts to retell the same messiah story?

To pick an example I know you're familiar with, [i]Mass Effect 3[/i] stood out to me as a story that uses the motif poorly. It even used the Jesus model several times in the same game: arguably Mordin, Legion, and Shepard all play Jesus at the key points of the story. I believe you have a few articles on this site about kludgy Jesus imagery in Potter, which I broadly agree with as well.

I agree that "good vs evil" is not actually a central theme of Christianity per se, at least not good vs evil as a literal external conflict, but I think that the notions of good and evil in the sense of there being a right/Godly/pious way to live and a wrong/Ungodly/sinful way to live is quite a major part of Christianity as I understand it, although what explicitly counts as right or wrong varies massively depending on the individual Christian.


Certainly, but I have to agree with Janne here. Surely the idea that there are right and wrong ways to live is common to almost all religious or philosophical codes? I believe some new religious movements try to stand back from prescriptive moral decrees - I'm most familiar with Neopaganism through a couple of friends - but even they, from my experience, aren't willing to stand back from all moral guidance.

Coming back to literature, I know that's not the same as a good versus evil plot motif. Christian thought also has a habit of personifying evil in Satan, demons, etc.: whether to take that metaphorically or not is a matter for the individual believer, but it does provide a fertile ground for fantasy. Conflict between explicitly good and explicitly evil powers is something you find in Christianity, I suppose, and not always in other belief systems. So I can see how you might bring out that conflict in a Christian-inspired work.

I think also that one can identify something as being characteristically Christian without it necessarily being a defining feature of Christianity. A good example (and I hope not too flippant a one) here might be the Cleric's Turn Undead ability in D&D.


I've come across that before, over on this blog. D&D is an interesting microcosm of mainstream fantasy in this light. I'd be inclined to argue it goes back to Tolkien's kludgy attempts to marry his Catholic faith with the Nordic and Germanic mythology he so loved.
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at 22:10 on 11-11-2013, Janne Kirjasniemi
I think that the notions of good and evil in the sense of there being a right/Godly/pious way to live and a wrong/Ungodly/sinful way to live is quite a major part of Christianity as I understand it, although what explicitly counts as right or wrong varies massively depending on the individual Christian.

One might argue, that any system of religious or philosophical thought, does carry with it some moral implications and assignments of what is valuable and what is not. Terms like permitted and prohibited and on the other hand discouraged and encouraged are not necessarily the same as christian good and bad and of course the terms good and bad themselves can be defined in different ways. Like roman virtue is considered a good, but it is not a christian good as commonly thought and the same could be said about classical greek arete or aristos. To restrain myself from rambling, there is a christian good, I think, although even this might change depending on the period of history, but the difference between different culture's view of the term good is not necessarily the usage of the term and not necessarily even the way it is conceptualized, but rather the contents, that is what exactly is considered good and bad and in relation to what is this justified. The will or nature of god, an idea of goodness or something else. But the core concepts, or grammar is still there. But I guess this depends on whether one is a moral relativist or a moral universalist.
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at 21:35 on 11-11-2013, Dan H
Leaving aside the discussion of ancient religion, I'm not sure what to think of that implication. On the one hand, I am glad for the reminder that science fiction and fantasy both tend to follow a strongly Christian outline (I am a fairly religious person, so 'Space Jesus' is a particular bugbear of mine); on the other I feel it's probably being too reductive when it comes to what Christianity is.


When you say "a fairly religious person" (and if this is a personal question, do feel free not to answer it) do you mean "a fairly religious Christian" (and therefore Space Jesus bothers you because it appropriates something you consider to be an important part of your religion) or do you mean "a fairly religious [member of any other non-Christian religion]" (and therefore Space Jesus bothers you because it treats a central feature of somebody else's religion as a central feature of all religions)? Just curious since it could be read either way.

I agree that "good vs evil" is not actually a central theme of Christianity per se, at least not good vs evil as a literal external conflict, but I think that the notions of good and evil in the sense of there being a right/Godly/pious way to live and a wrong/Ungodly/sinful way to live is quite a major part of Christianity as I understand it, although what explicitly counts as right or wrong varies massively depending on the individual Christian.

I think also that one can identify something as being characteristically Christian without it necessarily being a defining feature of Christianity. A good example (and I hope not too flippant a one) here might be the Cleric's Turn Undead ability in D&D. Now obviously making vampires run away is hardly a defining feature of the Christian Faith in any of its denominations, but the idea that it is possible to overcome evil supernatural enemies explicitly by faith in a higher power seems to me to be very strongly grounded in Christian assumptions about how supernatural stuff works (indeed one of the many strange things about D&D is that it has a polytheistic setting in which virtually all religions have the trappings of Abrahamic monotheism). So although it isn't a strongly Christian concept in the sense of being a concept that is very important in Christianity, it is a strongly Christian concept in the sense of being a concept that seems derived from Christian cosmological assumptions rather than the cosmological assumptions of any other religion.

Of course this all gets very murky very quickly, because one has to walk a like between acknowledging that not all religions are the same and inadvertently claiming some kind of unique and special status for Christianity. It gets very messy because a lot of religions contain concepts which, as far as I can tell, were translated into English by Christian missionaries who used heavily Christianised language. I was reading a thread on some RPG forums only a couple of weeks ago in which somebody tried to insist that "every religion has a concept of Heaven and Hell" when I suspect that a more accurate statement would be "many religions include the concept of afterlives or otherworlds, which have often been translated as 'Heaven' or 'Hell' in English for want of a better term."

Gosh, who would have thought religion would be so complex.
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at 21:22 on 11-11-2013, Janne Kirjasniemi
Surely that's just fantasy's general habit of externalising inner conflict?

Well, not just fantasy, unless we count as fantasy things that go quite a while back, all the way to Milton, or Dante and all the works of fiction inspired by those. Late medieval morality plays had that thing where everyone has a small devil and an angel to discuss actions. Marlowe's Faustus I remember have had that trope as an influence. Milton has no doubt inspired many superficial imitations.

Interestingly, Manicheanism is apparently considered a gnostic religion, whereas what I think of when I hear gnostic, is not a polarity of values rather than the sort of neo-platonist theology of god as the centre of perfection and other aspects of the universe as more imperfect the further you get from the centre. I don't think that sense of gnosticism allows for the devil really or has good and evil as a dichotomy at all, since evil is insufficient, or the furthest from perfection and therefore really a result of ignorance and mistake, rather than a valid opposite value. In that case the saviour is the source of knowledge, rather than a literal, active saviour. Of course it does get tricky with theology, so I don't know how near I've missed with this.
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at 20:47 on 11-11-2013, Daniel F
Dan:
I suspect that "Manichean" here is being used in roughly the same way that "fascist" is used to describe anything vaguely authoritarian/right-wing/aggressive - that is, not literally associated with the Manichean religion but displaying qualities that are loosely associated with it.


In context, isn't it fairly obvious that it's using 'Manichaean' as a synonym for 'good versus evil'? The phrase both depend on Manichaean, good-versus-evil plots seems difficult to misinterpret.

Leaving aside the discussion of ancient religion, I'm not sure what to think of that implication. On the one hand, I am glad for the reminder that science fiction and fantasy both tend to follow a strongly Christian outline (I am a fairly religious person, so 'Space Jesus' is a particular bugbear of mine); on the other I feel it's probably being too reductive when it comes to what Christianity is.

That is, I can agree that SF/fantasy does have a preoccupation with 'good versus evil', but I'm not sure I'd say that Christianity depends on that pattern. Certainly Christianity depends on the recognition that bad stuff happens, as do most religions on some level, but that doesn't necessarily lead you to a dualist, 'good versus evil' view of the universe. Surely it would make just as much sense to assert that Christianity is resolutely anti-Manichaean, not just for historical reasons, but since it holds that there can be no meaningful cosmic conflict with God, evil is radically insufficient (if it exists at all), and so on?

You might be able to draw 'good versus evil' themes out of Christianity, but it hardly seems essential to me.

Janne:
But perhaps seeing the thing more subtly, rather than seeing judeo-christian influence as a whole as some sort of war between good and evil only, is more interesting. The anthropomorphization of evil makes for a better action oriented story,


Surely that's just fantasy's general habit of externalising inner conflict?
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at 18:33 on 11-11-2013, Janne Kirjasniemi
Damn those thetans are holding me back. I seem to find even 50 hours exhausting. Well, when I have money...
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at 18:25 on 11-11-2013, Arthur B
Nonsense, clearly it pummels the reactive mind into submission! If you find slave labour doesn't pump you up the tone scale you're doing it wrong and need to report the downstat, audit your overts and withholds, accept and follow your ethics condition and get back in-ethics and on lines.
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at 18:03 on 11-11-2013, Janne Kirjasniemi
I would imagine slaving away 130 hours a week on a ship without pay dampens the creative spirit a bit.
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at 17:58 on 11-11-2013, Arthur B
A related question: why aren't there more Scientologists writing SF? L. Ron did set up a writing contest after all (whilst on the run from the law, no less!) so he presumably approved of people making their own, inferior contributions to the medium (provided they didn't include Xenu because ORIGINAL CHARACTER DO NOT STEAL).
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at 17:34 on 11-11-2013, Janne Kirjasniemi
Since 2/3 of medieval literature consists of elaborate fart jokes, I'm not sure the author of the article would consider it "serious."


A not insignificant part of Joyce seems to dwell on masturbation, so one should hope fart jokes are not out of the literary realm. If all else fails, keep repeating: Bakhtin, Rabelais, Aristophanes and carnivalization.
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at 17:29 on 11-11-2013, Janne Kirjasniemi
Hmm... it seems Mani did get his own religion going, while still being a self-admitted adherent of Jesus. Interesting guy, trying to tie together several different things. But synergy and assimilation is usually a virtue in the religious marketplace.

there *are* a number of assumptions that wind up being carried over from broadly Judeo-Christian cultural contexts into all sorts of things, fiction included.

Hard to disagree with that. But perhaps seeing the thing more subtly, rather than seeing judeo-christian influence as a whole as some sort of war between good and evil only, is more interesting. The anthropomorphization of evil makes for a better action oriented story, but is hardly the only thing or even the most pervading thing in our culture that comes from that particular source.
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at 17:27 on 11-11-2013, Michal
I think you could make an argument that being part of an organisation which could wreck your family and social life...if you say the wrong thing can restrict your creativity in such a way that making decent artistic work much more difficult.

I suppose it's possible to make a comparison to the flourishing of science fiction in communist Poland because that was a genre the censors completely dismissed. It doesn't really work when you think about it, beyond approaching it in a vague "this is the only place where you can explore issues kept silent in the church without getting kicked out for it, and even then you have to be careful" kind of way.

On the other hand, if that were true, where does that leave more or less all the literature of medieval Europe?

Since 2/3 of medieval literature consists of elaborate fart jokes, I'm not sure the author of the article would consider it "serious."
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at 16:55 on 11-11-2013, Dan H
Not to mention that mainline Christianity expressly denounces Manicheanism.


I suspect that "Manichean" here is being used in roughly the same way that "fascist" is used to describe anything vaguely authoritarian/right-wing/aggressive - that is, not literally associated with the Manichean religion but displaying qualities that are loosely associated with it. Christianity might explicitly denounce Manicheanism, but it is still arguably a "Manichean" religion in the loose, non-technical (and borderline useless) sense of "believes in the concepts of good and evil."

And I agree that it isn't exactly helpful to treat "Christian" like it's a monolith (and it's a bit off to treat the LDS as not being part of Christianity) but at the same time there *are* a number of assumptions that wind up being carried over from broadly Judeo-Christian cultural contexts into all sorts of things, fiction included.
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at 16:52 on 11-11-2013, Arthur B
Manichaeanism is complicated but so far as I can tell Mani popped up in the 3rd Century AD and was all like "Yo, don't mind me, I'm a follower of Jesus just like the rest of you" and the Christians took one look at his wacky cosmology and said "Er, actually you seem to be just kind of weird, kindly cease taking our boss's name in vain kthx".
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at 16:13 on 11-11-2013, Janne Kirjasniemi
Wasn't Manicheanism one of those other similar religions from roughly the same area as Christianity that just didn't succeed to the same degree? But yeah, apparently the author assumes that because superficially religious(meaning Christian) films and media often have satan as a character, it must mean that that is pretty much the main thing about Christianity and since Tolkien is catholic + Sauron(or Morgoth for experts), this holds true of genre literature as well. And Star Wars of course.
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at 16:01 on 11-11-2013, Arthur B
I'm not a terribly religious person, but the writer seems to depend on some heavy generalizations here regarding both theology and genre fiction.

Not to mention that mainline Christianity expressly denounces Manicheanism. The Manicheans were, like, some of the first dudes to get kicked out of the club back in the day.

Next up: "Why do Zoroastrians write so much glam rock?", an article based on the author not being aware of any Zoroastrian musicians aside from Freddie Mercury.
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at 15:54 on 11-11-2013, Janne Kirjasniemi
From the article:

Christianity and genre fiction both depend on Manichaean, good-versus-evil plots, and the savior motif, in which an anointed one saves the kingdom or the world, is important to sci-fi and fantasy and central to the Christian Gospel.

These sorts of blanket statements are very annoying as well. Not only because it is easy to come up with counter-examples from speculative fiction, it also claims that there is some sort of one Christian Gospel that is just so simple and reductive. I'm not a terribly religious person, but the writer seems to depend on some heavy generalizations here regarding both theology and genre fiction. But think how insignificant this article would be if one removed all the weird stuff. Like why bring up Shakespeare or Milton? Why make so many blanket statements? Then it would be just: mormon writers make popular young adult and genre fiction, which might or might not have something to do with the religion; we do not really know, but we will make assumptions.

Robinson:
All those are symptoms, but I would argue the problems go much deeper. It's analogous to asking how, say, patriarchy or racism are perpetuated within a "democratic" system - does that make sense?

I think so. But perhaps a defense might be that the system of government will always be work in progress and while the situation is dire, it's still an improvement on the way things were 100 hundred years ago. Although that might just be moderate hand-waving. It is just that in my mind, an utopic society would not come about by sudden upheaval, but by baby steps. Of course a few revolutions might be needed on the way... Parecon seems interesting. I've read some Kropotkin and Bakunin, but if you have any other reading suggestions, I would be grateful.

On the subject of anarchic communities, I know it's not the same, but the sort of christian communitarian communities which sprang up in connection with the reformation, the mennonites, the amish or the hutterites seem an interesting example of a stable and long living community. Of course they arefar from perfect and at least the amish practice on exiling non-conforming members. Which is probably the most ancient form of social punishment imaginable, in addition to social moral judgement, which would probably be present in any community. Of course they depend on people leaving them be as well as protecting them(quite like the capitalist extremes of Monaco, or Dubai or tax havens in general depend on protection to exist). But in general, if a society shares a story or an ideal of how things should be, it can achieve longevity and progress. Pretty much how Nordic welfare states depended on co-operation between moderate left and right to build a relatively inclusive society to block radical wings from succeeding. The stories which seem to be gaining in popularity nowadays seem so lacking in many respects.
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at 00:10 on 10-11-2013, Arthur B
But "why is there no Mormon Shakespeare" is a much more loaded question, and the whole article does essentially wind up coming across as dismissive of both Mormonism *and* genre fiction (these people have a *silly* religion so they write *silly* books).

Yeah, the article pretty much boils down to "why do these people whose worldviews and ethics are incompatible with mine write stuff which I don't especially like?"

To be fair to the article, it does raise a glancingly useful point in that the official Latter Day Saints church is an organisation which does make particular demands of its members and will kick your ass out if you're openly breaking from the hierarchy. On the other hand, there's a distinction between "being a Mormon" and "being a member of the official LDS" - there are people outside the LDS who practice Mormonism both as splinter sects and on their ownsome. I think you could make an argument that being part of an organisation which could wreck your family and social life (by kicking you out and asking people to shun you) and, if you actually believe in its doctrine, consign you to hell if you say the wrong thing can restrict your creativity in such a way that making decent artistic work much more difficult. On the other hand, if that were true, where does that leave more or less all the literature of medieval Europe?
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