A book of horror philosophy about the end of the world, the alt-right, and an AI from the future that wants to torture you. Yes, you.
Let’s start by admitting I’m out of my depth here. According to the Kickstarter, “Neoreaction a Basilisk is a work of theoretical philosophy about the tentacled computer gods at the end of the universe.” To say I am under qualified to talk about this book would be somewhat of an understatement. On the other hand, the KS also describes this book as “A book of horror philosophy about the end of the world, the alt-right, and an AI from the future that wants to torture you. Yes, you.” Which is the sound of the train slowing down just enough for me to risk jumping on board, I guess, though there’s every chance I will go kersplat in the attempt.
Still, let’s risk it.
I’m familiar with Dr. Sandifer’s work via his TARDIS Eruditorum blog, primarily - a project that watched every single Doctor Who TV story in existence, in order, and wrote about them, though it also encompassed far more than that - in fact, it told the history of British culture from 1963 to the present with Doctor Who as it’s chosen lens, basically. And as a Who fan, that’s always going to be catnip to me, basically. Sandifer covers, as you might fairly expect, a lot of ground in that project, but for my money, his writing was never finer, sharper, or more insightful than when he was taking on the subject of bullies.
Dr Sandifer really, really doesn’t like bullies.
Take, for example, this piece on Mary Whitehouse - in my opinion, the most brilliant and concise response to that campaigner, and the movements she represented, of any I’ve seen before or since. Notice too that this hits on an area of writing I will always find powerful - a fusion of the utterly and deeply personal with an understanding of wider political context and structures, and how the two relate. Also, anger. Because in the context of writing, anger is a gift.
So it may not come as a galloping shock to discover that Dr. S is also not a big fan of the Rabid Puppies hijacking of the Hugos. Because, well, bullies. To that end, he’s written what I again consider to be the best single post on this matter last year, in an essay called ‘Guided By The Beauty Of Their Weapons’ which I named as my non-fiction essay of 2015. And he’s since demolished Rabid Puppy founder Vox Day in a one on one debate concerning the relative merits of John C. Wright’s ‘One Bright Star To Guide Them’ and Iain Banks ‘The Wasp Factory', with Dr. S having the admittedly easier task of arguing in support of the book that isn’t god-awful (which, good job selling Vox on that).
Sidebar: To my mind the most telling exchange in that debate comes when, in the context of discussing notions of scepticism as relates to religious ‘truths’ Mr. Day says, with an apparently straight face ‘But Phil, you shouldn’t be sceptical about 2 + 2, should you?’. It’s a moment of such gobsmacking stupidity that Dr. S can be heard audibly floundering for a response, and I tragically cannot be heard yelling at the top of my lungs ‘you can be sceptical as you like about 2 + 2, and IT STILL WORKS! That’s the point of an ACTUAL truth, you fucking idiot!’. I’m sure you had your own reason why that was a mind numbingly stupid statement, of course. You kind of have to admire an ability to be wrong on that many levels with that few words.
Anyhow, between the essay and subsequent podcast debate, Dr. S was well and truly on the radar of some fairly objectionable people - GamerGaters, Rabid Puppies, and the hulking trolls of the alt right and neoreaction in general. Whilst Guided By The Beauty Of Their Weapons eventually made it into book form as part of an essay collection at the end of 2015, I’d always suspected the alt right might be a subject Dr. S would return to, given his personal and political opposition to everything they stand for.
Which leads us, a mere 650 words after I began, to Neoreaction A Basilisk.
And the first thing to note is that Vox and the Puppies are entirely absent from this book. I mean, if you’re familiar with the arguments, and with Vox’s backstory, there’s a couple of deep-cut references that will raise a smile, but that’s not the primary focus of the book. Rather the book focusses on the writers and thinkers that Dr. S identifies as the key intellectuals behind the current Alt Right philosophy: namely, Nick Land, Mencius Moldbug, and Eliezer Yudkowsky (the latter, just to be clear, emphatically not an alt.right thinker, but whose work heavily influenced the thinking of the other two).
So, critical disclaimer time: I’m not familiar with any of the source material here at all. This review will not speak to the veracity of the claims Dr. S makes about these thinkers. It can’t. I can’t. I don’t know. If you have a view on that, fine, and feel free to write in, but understand that I will not have a clue what you are talking about and won’t be able to make a determination either way as to the veracity of either your claims or Sandifer’s.
Of course, there’s a way in which that makes me, if not an ideal reader, at least firmly part of the intended target audience. Dr S has repeatedly stated that you don’t need to know the source material in order to enjoy the book, and indeed has repeatedly advised against reading Moldbug, as it’s (in Sandifer’s opinion) irredeemably awful writing (which, on the strength of the provided excerpts, I’d be inclined to believe him on).
What this book is - or at least, appeared to me to be at first - is a takedown of the alt.right based on the philosophy that you shouldn’t attack your enemy where he is weakest (like, say, at the point of some third-rate-thinker-if-first-rate-self-publicist like Vox Day) but instead go to where he is strongest, the intellectual bedrock, and start there. Again, I can’t speak to whether or not these chosen thinkers fit that bill, but the extracted arguments certainly indicate a level of thought that your average VD type is simply incapable of reaching.
What Dr. S then does is deploy other, existing thinkers/modes of approach to demonstrate the weaknesses inherent in each of the founding principles of these philosophies. If that sentence just gave you a headache, honestly, I don’t blame you - it’s giving me one, and I wrote it. But here’s the thing - it bloody works. Dr. S has an amazing gift for rendering complex and sophisticated arguments and propositions in an immediately readable and understandable way, deploying metaphor, unpacking terminology, and adding humour to expert effect. You really don’t need to know anything about philosophy (I basically don’t) to not just follow the conversation, but be entertained by it.
And of course, he also employs horror philosophy as part of his argument, which is why we're talking about this book here. Specifically, he talks about Hannibalism (which attempts to construct a working philosophical approach based on a close read of the recent three season run of ‘Hannibal’, which is as deliciously deranged as you’d expect) and the work of Thomas Ligotti, especially his non-fiction book ‘The Conspiracy Against The Human Race’, which if you’re anything like me you’ll know about primarily because all the best lines that Matthew Mcconaughey’s character Rust Cohle had in True Detective season 1 got ripped off from there (and if you already knew that, more power to you).
It’s dense, literate, intelligent stuff, but I reiterate it’s also brilliantly readable. Even when he goes into his inevitable Blake riff (Dr. S is a huge Blake fan, and it’s something of an in-joke at this point that any project of any size he writes about will end up having a Blake section), the explanations and inferences are crystal clear, and it all serves the overarching thrust of the piece. Similarly, his deployment of Ligotti vs. Land I found genuinely unnerving, as the scale and depth of Ligotti’s nihilism threatens to overwhelm not just Land, but everything else, too.
As to the wider horror context, it’s like this: The alt.right scare me. Gamergate as a movement troubles me. Vox Day doesn’t scare me… but the fact that he and his little gang have kids definitely does. Tribal hatreds are viral in nature, transmitted across generations, and while I’d argue our societal immune systems have never been stronger than they are right now, the fact remains these strains are still stubborn and pervasive. I’ll never not be a free speecher, but equally I therefore see it as an obligation to exercise free speech against toxic ideas and arguments. To, not to put too fine a point on it, argue with and against bullies.
This is my design, be it ever so humble and flawed and compromised.
So the notion of a book that attacks the foundational texts of those movements, and even more, in part deploys horror fiction and philosophy to do it was always going to appeal to me. And for my money, Dr. S is always at his best when he is employing his considerable intellect, powers of argument, and yes, most of all his passionate anger, in the service of delivering bullies an intellectual kicking.
Ultimately though, that ends up not being precisely what this book is about. Or at least not the full scope of it. And I have to be honest, the end of the piece plain got away from me, as I suspected it might (as, I further suspect, it may even have been intended to). Kersplat, in other words.
But what a damn ride!
So in closing, if any of the above has piqued your interest, the Kickstarter is running until 1st June, with backers getting immediate access to the review text (that this post is based on) as well as some KS exclusive physical editions. And if this has piqued your interest, I feel pretty safe in saying this is probably something you need in your life. It’s an exhilarating, intellectually stimulating, and yeah, disturbing read.