Welcome Phil! So first off, how would you explain Neoreaction a Basilisk to a neophyte?
Well, the "awkwardly explain to my family when they ask what I'm up to without actually wanting to know" answer has become "it's a book about esoteric right-wing philosophy and the end of the world." If I'm not trying actively to avoid forcing my family to grapple too directly with the fact that I'm completely insane, I'll add "artificial intelligence" and "philosophical horror" to the list of topics.
What do you mean by philosophical horror?
It's an idea I get from Eugene Thacker, who's sort of the hot thing in philosophy among literary types these days. (Or at least among comic book writers.) He argues that there's an inherent link between philosophy and horror fiction, such that you can read philosophy as though it's a horror story and vice versa. Works of philosophy always have implications they don't pursue or possibilities they shy away from, basically, and by exploring these you can usually twist the philosophy into something much more unsettling and disturbing. The obvious example, and the one that's in my title, is Roko's Basilisk, but I see you've got a question about that up ahead, so I'll save it for there.
What is the Neoreactionary movement? What about the Neoreactionary movement interested you enough to write a book about them?
The neoreactionary movement is a school of far-right thought emerging from the work of a guy who blogged under the name of Mencius Moldbug, who argues that democracy is a bad idea, monarchy is good, and slavery should be reinstituted. This proved really popular among the sorts of people who like Trump, have anime characters as their Twitter icons, and post a lot on Reddit about how Anita Sarkeesian is the devil. But as someone who's really invested in thinking about radical leftist politics, there's a sort of perverse and pathological "through the looking glass" appeal to far-right nutjobs.
The three personalities at the heart of this book: Eliezer Yudkowsky, Nick Land, and Mencius Moldbug are definitely interesting characters, but they’re all very different. What made you pick these three specific individuals?
It started with Land, who's a former academic philosopher who was one of the earliest thinkers in a movement called accelerationism, which basically says that the solution to all the problems of capitalism is just to speed up the process so it gets to its historical end. Land was a postmodernist and Marxist, but in 2013 he made a dramatic heel turn and threw in his lot with the neoreactionaries, basically arguing that this was the way to bring about the capitalist singularity, which he's a little hazy on the details of, but clearly involves AI and face tentacles and the like. And he seemed really perversely interesting, and to tie in with a bunch of other stuff I was thinking about.
But writing about him meant writing about Moldbug, since his work cites Moldbug so heavily. And Yudkowsky was an influence on both Land and Moldbug, and also thought a lot about the singularity (which for him is a good thing where we're all uploaded to computers and become immortal and a superintelligent AI solves all our problems for us), so he ended up just sort of rounding out the set neatly and giving me three thinkers with enough similarities to form a coherent topic but enough differences to keep the book moving.
The title of your book references “Roko’s Basilisk”, which is both ridiculous and fascinating (Those of you who read the 10,000 Dawns story “The Hell of Agreement” in the Convention Anthology “Tales From the 10,000 Dawns” might remember it explained there). Could you tell us about the Basilisk, and what interests you about it?
Oh, man. So, basically the Basilisk is a thing that happened in the comments of Eliezer Yudkowsky's website, where someone, riffing on a bunch of commonly accepted premises within that community, suggested the idea of a futuristic AI that would reincarnate you and torture you for all eternity if you didn't donate money to help bring it into existence. And people freaked out about it. Like, there were people who had nightmares about this AI, Yudkowsky himself wrote this amazing all-caps furious comment berating the guy who suggested it for even talking about it. It's one of the most amazing instances of philosophical horror to take place in recent memory - an actual case of people being demonstrably spooked by an unexpected consequence of their train of thought.
Do you have a favorite passage from the book?
I'm probably most partial to a moment fairly late in the book where I kind of off-handedly indicate a possible starting point for a new model of leftist thought that takes empathy as its central principle, and suggest a bunch of readings that might be useful in expanding it, then basically go "but instead of talking about that, let's poke at these stupid racists some more." It really captures the perverse essence of the book.
The marketing campaign for your book has been one of the most brilliant things about it. All you did was give your book the possibility of existing, and it was as though the fans of Yudkowsky, Land, and Moldbug were scared of people looking into the face of a Basilisk: they reacted really passionately, and strongly, and suddenly spread knowledge of your book farther than it would have otherwise. What was the response of their fans like for you? How much of that was intentional? Did you enjoy interacting with their fans?
Oh, thank you. I wouldn't want to suggest I sought out to antagonize any of them or their fans. The only one of them I reached out to was Nick Land, as I thought there was a chance he'd legitimately get a kick out of the book even as he disagreed. He thanked me for my chutzpah, and tossed a link into his weekly linkblogging post. I've been happy to engage in dialogue with anyone interested in the book, though, and a couple fans of both Moldbug and Yudkowsky had been making a bit of noise about the book on Tumblr, including some misunderstandings of what it was doing (like that it was attempting to say that Yudkowsky was himself a neoreactionary, which he's not.) So I made an offer of review copies to anyone who wanted to look at the book from a skeptical perspective, and some people took me up on it, and it kind of escalated the way things do to where Eliezer Yudkowsky himself made a vagueblog that's obviously about the book in which he implored people not to talk about it and referred to it as "[CENSORED]," which is of course the exact same dumb thing he did with the Basilisk and caused a nice little spike in my Kickstarter numbers.
So that's the sort of misadventure you simultaneously hope for and feel a little guilty about, as a writer. On the whole, I appreciate that the book's been generating such a reaction. It's a book that was kind of designed to piss some people off, so I can't exactly act upset that both it and I have gotten some flak. A surprisingly large amount of the flak has engaged with the book in intelligent and thoughtful ways, though, and at impressive length, as have some of the good reviews, and it's hard not to be proud of a book that's generating that much intelligent and interesting reaction.
What was the strangest reaction the book has gotten?
The chain of increasingly irate Tumblr posts from a guy who steadily came to the conclusion that the basilisk was my penis has to win this one, I think.
The Kickstarter for this book has absolutely exploded, did you expect this level of interest in a weird philosophy book?
I mean, I had stretch goals out this far, so I can't pretend I was completely unprepared for it doing this well. But we're definitely in "best case scenario" territory. Let's say I absolutely had faith the book could be interesting to this many people, but I wasn't sure I knew how to sell them on the weird philosophy, and I'm tremendously grateful so many people have believed my pitch on it.
One thing that really surprised me about “Basilisk” is that its so easily readable, especially since I have very little experience with philosophy. What made you chose the (really funny) style you did?
Mostly it just seemed like being funny was probably a good way to leaven what would otherwise be a really theoretical and obtuse book. It's the logic of the dramedy applied to abstract philosophy: put jokes in. But it also helped strike a necessary balance in talking about these particular thinkers. Among them you're dealing with a lot of ideas that are ridiculous and/or viscerally abhorrent, and while the argument I wanted to make necessitated taking them seriously, I didn't want to give them undue respect. So contrasting what's really a pretty thorough account of their thought backed up with lots of quotations with a snarky, even at times contemptuous tone struck a good balance, and made the book, as you say, readable.
You’re previously known for your Doctor Who essay series “TARDIS Eruditorum”, and your comic book philosophy essay series “Last War in Albion”. What can readers of those blogs/books expect to enjoy from this project?
It's very much my trademark "make a topic interesting by wandering around it and seeng what happens" approach, and while there's no Doctor Who or Alan Moore (although Moore will be showing up in the stretch goal essay on lizard people), a lot of the themes and questions I use Doctor Who and British comics to explore are explored in Neoreaction a Basilisk. Basically, I totally understand why someone who came to my work for the Doctor Who might not be interested in this, but equally, nobody looking at my previous work and this is going to be surprised they're by the same author.
I first learned about Yudkowsky from his Harry Potter fanfiction “Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality” (full disclosure: I reviewed that book positively for “Weird Kitties” on Eruditorum Press). Of course, Harry Potter fights a Basilisk created by Salazar Slytherin in “The Chamber of Secrets.” So let’s go pedantic: who would win in a fight: Roko’s Basilisk, or Slytherin’s Basilisk?
Certainly Slytherin's Basilisk is more real, in the sense of being a more widely known concept. It has more power as a sigil. Equally, Roko's Basilisk, being an AI, is largely immune to most of Slytherin's Basilisk's obvious threats, so it's tough to see how it wouldn't win in a head-to-head.
I figure in the end, one way or another, Glycon prevails.
Thank you for taking the time to talk to us Phil! You can find the Kickstarter for “Neoreaction a Basilisk” at the link below: