Jeff LaSala is one of the more interesting Tolkien fans writing blogs about the guy.

He’s got a point in here I’ve seen many times before, often stated not just as an opinion but as uncontestable fact.

“There is no such thing as evil. What people identify as evil is only the absence of good.” Grep for ‘absence’ and you’ll find it a little over halfway down.

Now Jeff doesn’t claim to espouse this, merely relating Shippley’s argument. I’ve heard this innumerable times, and read it in Tolkien’s notes and letters. I also disagree. I think evil is a thing. I’m quoting those articles because they’re the onramp to a fairly well travelled bit of thought, but having gotten up to speed and merged, here’s the scenery.

First, what exactly are orcs? Regardless of their origins (see Jeff’s recap. Again, top notch), they exist and they’re bad. In Middle Earth, orcs exist. They’re all over the place. And they’re bad. No good orc deed is disclosed, save possibly the Uruk Hai giving Pippin and Merry medicine in the run to Isengard. That’s under questionable auspices. But in every other circumstance, they are portrayed as bad. And they exist.

Sauron? Exists, is bad.

Melkor? Exists or existed, is/was bad.

So there are these entities floating around that are evil. They do things, and they’re not the forces of good inwardly collapsing. They may be dehumanized metaphorical people, translated from real world to fiction, but in the fiction they’re real.

People doing evil things exist in the real world too.

A difference is that in fiction, certain creatures exist in evil as actions to harm others (Into his ring he poured his malice and his will to dominate others), while in the real world, most (maybe all) evil exists as ignoring others. The guy who shoves people out of the way to get through a line isn’t thinking he wants to push other people back. He’s thinking he wants to get himself ahead. And that’s why he’ll defend himself. “I wasn’t trying to hurt anyone! I just wanted to get ahead!” But of course that does hurt someone, and that’s why what he did was evil.

CS Lewis gets into this in his apology for God by talking about how people defend their actions. I need to read that again before quoting, because I want to be sure I get it right. Inklings, et al.

But that tangent aside, there are orcs, and they are bad. Is that not enough for the positive existence of evil, at least in fiction?

I suppose the argument here is that they do exist, but they’re not bad. They’re just not good.

This strikes me as an absurd bit of semantics. SOMETHING exists. That SOMETHING has to be something, has to be made of something, has to have attributes. That SOMETHING cannot merely not be something else, because then the not-something-else doesn’t describe what the SOMETHING is.

Imagine you’re in Middle Earth. I point at an orc.

“What is that?” I say.

You understand I am talking about the orc.

“An orc,” you reply.

“Does it exist?”


“Is it evil?”

“No, it’s not good,” you counter argue.

“But that’s what it’s not. If it’s not good, but it is something, what is it? Must it not be positive evil? If it positively is something, and that something isn’t good, must that thing be positively evil than? Active evil? Evil not in the absence of something else, but evil as a thing itself?”

Then we start arguing about perverted elves or humans diminished, the powers of Melkor before he was Morgoth, and all that jazz. That entire discussion is a red herring.

“What is that?” I repeat, pointing at the orc.

“Orc stuff.”

The crux of the absence-of-good argument is that not-something can do stuff. That’s nonsense.

Start With Why

A friend pitched me on this book. The book isn’t as good as the ideas, but the ideas are fascinating. It’s good brainfood if you can detach message from messenger. More like message from handwriting, because Sinek just seems like a better talker than writer.

The basic premise, start with why you’re doing things, appeals to me. I’m very good at the how and what, but those whys are difficult. So the seeds dropped on fertile mind-soil. What’s more, having a distinct why makes doing things easier. Frankl talked about this, and that book affected me deeply. Frankl wasn’t very pragmatic, Sinek was, so it came across as a useful harmony.

Whys can either be so broad as to be meaningless, so narrow as to be meaningless, and the modicum in between is both useful and frustrating. Suppose Alice’s objective is ‘Make the world a better place.’ That’s the former. She can work in a soup kitchen, make a ton of money and support a soup kitchen, or go buy and eat soup. Soup makes her world a better place, she’s in the world, therefore Alice eating soup makes the world a better place. Yay! That’s the lowest positive increment.

Conversely, if Zara decides she’s going to give a can of soup to a charity, and then congratulate herself for accomplishing her life goal, she’s also done something positive. The soup got donated. Yay! Lowest positive increment.

The stuff in the middle is the kicker.

With apologies to the Moody Blues, I’ll give a couple thoughts I cannot defend. The way to do great things is do small things that lead in the direction of greatness. 90% of the time you focus on the small things, 5% you focus on the goal, and 5% you focus on who you are. Nothing works without the rest, but that’s a decent proportion. You can probably see why I liked and disagreed with Start With Why if you’ve read it.

Starting from there, one needs a concrete, action-verb why. It should point in the direction of making the world a better place, but should be a distinct thing. Some people will agree, some won’t, and water will remain wet. What I’m working on right now with the C-IED/C-LM robots and the books is ‘Take some harm out of the world.’

If I remove a few, that’s less landmines. Landmines are bad, so fewer of them is less negatives. I think there is such a thing as positive evil, evil existing as something not just the absence of good, and landmines are bad. Reducing the landmine counts reduces the bad.

In the books, I often think about people coming to bad circumstances or bad situations, and not fixing things but reducing the harm. I struggle with this notion: how do you make things less bad? And yet there’s meaning in there.

Lost Horizon

Finished this last night.

Lost Horizon was a 1933 utopian novel. Not a whole lot happens, and most all of that toward the beginning. Once the inciting incident occurs, the rest is just talking, and since the story is told in the form of a flashback, there’s not a lot of drama. The story itself is obviously intended to be thought provoking, not exciting.

As I said, the ideas are more fun than the telling. Shangri-La is an impossible place where the rules bend. It’s majestic, exotic, and fun. The basic conflict is one of action vs repose. Is doing more important than thinking? In Tolkien terms, who has a more interesting story: Bilbo when he rests in Rivendell, or Frodo running about getting into fights? Hilton does a better job of making this complicated than you might expect.

The problems with the story are not a lot happens, the locals are basically scenery for noble Europeans and Americans, and wisdom is drawn from laziness. In order, there’s just not a lot that happens. No one does much. This is a big point, because the setting is violently predicated on Gotterdammerung and the doing of things is bad. Everything people do ends badly. War is coming, and we’re all gonna die. So the wise people do nothing.

I mean nothing, nothing, because the only shred of conflict is a love triangle that goes exactly nowhere.

The locals are scenery, meant to show the wonder of the white people. They do nothing.

In fairness, the white people don’t do anything either, see above, so at least it’s even-handed doing nothing. But a bunch of white people go to Tibet to do nothing, where the local Tibetans do nothing, and the story follows the white ones. The one character who does anything interesting on camera dies before you find out his name. He has no lines. Eh.

So the story isn’t that hot.

But I liked Shangri-La a lot. It’s a mystical city up by mystical mountains, and while my red-blooded self was looking for a few murders, the ambience of the story flowed over me like a warm wave. I enjoyed the reading. I liked thinking about magical cities in the mountains. There was an allure there, and I related to the characters if not their inactivity. Conway (MC) expresses very accurately what it’s like to go through something, and be done with it, and keep on living. He talks about the numbness, what can become laziness, and the way that seems hidden in wisdom. The points about the refugees from the WW1 trenches speak clearly.

I utterly reject the pessimism of the book. I don’t like the way they go seek out new experiences to be met by their own people. The whole thing is just too safe, and what might be the most exciting part, the escape from Shangri-La, doesn’t actually take place on camera.

It’s also one of these artsy books where they insinuate all the action, expose all the thought, and resolve nothing.

The book left me hungry.

Hilton obviously wrote from a perspective of being racially tolerant, and that’s fascinating to see. 1930s tolerant comes across very oddly today. I do wonder what 2110s will think of 2020s tolerant, and bet they’ll look as oddly at us now as I do at Hilton. It keeps the ego in check.

It could have been really good if the doer, Mallinson, made articulate arguments and wasn’t such a pointless boor. If the book was an actual battle of ideas, a dialogue like the Gorgias, or even just a meaningful conflict. But Mallinson isn’t really a character, he has only one emotion: frustration, and the bizarre love angle between him and Lo-Tsen could really use some flesh. The book reminds me a lot of Hemmingway, who I also frequently find unsatisfying.

It could have been really good if Chang had a motivation, a plot arc, a character, or anything at all really. If any of the locals did.

Lost Horizon is like reading a framing story about reading a book, where at the end the narrator puts the book down, loses it, and ends on the giant cliff-hanger, ‘does he find it again?’


I enjoyed the context more than the story. It’s only one scene, and the murders happen off camera. The narration isn’t that exciting. But I like seeing where Cassandra comes from, the history of violence that begins with Atreus, and the nature of the phrophecies.

The story is sort of nonsensical. Imagine a musical where instead of silly and building into song, they’re tragic, devolve into song, and then they start murdering each other. It’s musical melodrama.

My New York Marathon

I just read this graphic novel by Sebastien Samson.

I liked it a lot more than I thought I would.

The medium of the graphic novel is an odd one, constantly being usurped by collections of comics which possess no meaningful story arc or singular plot. But novels in graphic form do exist. My New York Marathon is one.

The story is fairly straight forward, and there are no spoilers here. A man, Sebastien, has some friends who decide to run the NY marathon. He also decides to run the marathon. He’s not very athletic and his friends are, yet he does some manner of training. He does run the marathon. He thinks about things before, during, and after, and makes a lot of sketches. The art is cartoony but pleasant.

The whole thing is very mild, and it has to be. The crux of the matter is an unpleasant ordeal 42km long, but millions of people do this ordeal every year for fun. If the story got gritty and dark, it would come across as being absurd.

Sebastien never falls into that. He thinks, he runs, he thinks about running, and while there’s nothing really new, it’s very human. There’s a very accessible person on the other side of the page. He talks about his wife. The little bits of friction and cute little moments come together to form an extremely enjoyable narrative relationship. There’s obviously filtering going on, but what’s there is simply nice. Sebastien’s talks with his principal, various doctors, and other runners are all very much real people.

When you read something about people from other lands, even if they come to your land, you want to read something about the people. Who are these humans? What are they like? This book answers that. This is a runner, he’s not in great shape but he kinda likes it, and these are the people he knows and the places he lives. The book gives you a sense of self.

What really surprised me about this was how enjoyable it was without really having a plot. The guy runs a marathon. That’s it. The stakes don’t rise much, and even the climax, the running of the marathon itself, isn’t really a shocking incident. It’s well done. He talks about the wall at 15 miles, the excited anticipation, all those things, but there’s no real interpersonal conflict. There’s a bit of man vs self, but he’s not trying to destroy himself. He’s trying to overcome being lazy. And 26.2 is no joke.

This was a story sublimely appropriate for a graphic format. It reads so easily that the lack of grit and the effortless read fit the moderate battle of self vs self. It just works. It hits the balance, its stride, and cruises along to completion.

It really surprised me. I expected to be bored and wasn’t. I stayed up late to finish it the day I got it.