His Dark Materials & The Assault on Sociopathic Organizations

We know SF can “predict” the future. Star Trek TOS’s sliding doors, originally powered by stagehands left and right, now guard the entrance to every supermarket in America. My Motorola Droid doubles as a ST “communicator” and then some: mine includes a star chart, earthquake detector, and detailed map of the planet.

But what about fantasy?

I believe fantasy can predict the future.

My thesis (and I’m sticking to it): Fantasy can predict. Case in point: Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy and the child-abuse scandal currently threatening to “bring down” a very large and very old religious organization. I would argue this crisis is dimensionally different from earlier crises, that an important, permanent shift has occurred that will have effects beyond the organization in question.

Alternative thesis: Nothing “new” or “dimensionally different” distinguishes the current crisis from earlier, similar crises. But that in no way detracts from the power of Pullman’s trilogy. The trilogy focuses on the sociopathic nature of large organizations, a reality we will be reminded of time and again.

Regardless, the power of Pullman’s stories remains.

The Authority—or Old Men With Power

Wikipedia provides a fabulous, albeit long, article on The Authority as found in The Golden Compass / Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife and, most extensively, in The Amber Spyglass. A few paragraphs, italics mine:

The Authority was the first angel to come into existence; as did the subsequent angels, he formed and condensed from the substance known as Dust.

He led other angels and, later, humanity to believe that he was in fact God the creator of the multiverse.

This false claim legitimized his taking political power in the Kingdom of Heaven.

The angel Xaphania later found out the truth about him, whereupon [The Authority] banished her from the Kingdom… Xaphania and some other angels later started a rebellion against him…

In his old age, the Authority appointed the tyrannical archangel Metatron… to act as regent of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Eventually Metatron grew more powerful than his master.

Powerful stuff—non-traditional notions for which Pullman has been attacked and vilified in word and print. What if “the supreme” isn’t supreme at all—but a usurper?

Important: The Authority in The Golden Compass / Northern Lights abused children, severing them from their daemons/souls, creating—in effect—zombies.

Authority in Crisis

When reflecting on Pullman’s conception of “The Authority” I read a powerful Andrew Sullivan post. Sullivan, an intelligent and perceptive commentator, tracks the child-abuse scandal rocking the Catholic church at The Atlantic Online.

In this post Sullivan wrote (italics mine):

I’m religious. I demand to be protected from no debate.

And many of us who believe are indeed saying—and have been saying for a long, long time—that using religious authority to cover up child abuse is evil, insupportable, corrupt and wrong.

But if the church hierarchy does not understand this, if it does not instigate root and branch reform, if it uses this occasion to double down further, then it will deserve the secular assault that will come.

I fear the Church’s hierarchy is as over now as the Soviet hierarchy was in the 1980s…

So when will we Catholics have our velvet revolution? When will we finally stand up and deliver our church from the evil that now controls it?

And when will this farce of an establishment finally crumble into the dust it deserves?

More powerful stuff.

Pullman’s trilogy and current events share many common themes: authority/hierarchy and child abuse, organizational ossification, and member revolution.

Institutionalized Authority: Sociopathic By Nature

Organizations of every shade—community-based, political, religious—go through distinct phases, one of which is ossification. Those in power of ossified organizations do not voluntarily choose to dismantle them.

Real change usually requires a revolution before real change results.

Organizations aren’t human: they’re systems. As such, organizations seek their own multi-human-lifetime preservation. They also act in non-human ways. Some organizational actions mirror the actions of sociopaths.

The 2003 documentary The Corporation confronts these realities head on. Corporations exhibit characteristics common to all large organizations. As one commentator summarizes (italics mine):

The Corporation‘s thesis that corporations are psychopaths is neither a slur nor a conceit. It’s a fact…

Normal human beings are enmeshed in a network of obligations and competing goods. We’d all like to make money, but we recognize that other people’s rights and feelings matter, unlike psychopaths who feel entitled to do whatever they want.

If empathy and ethics aren’t enough to keep us normals on the straight and narrow, we can be deterred by punishments ranging from social ostracism to death. Even human psychopaths can be deterred by the threat of punishment.

Corporations have the same rights as people, plus more lawyers, guns and money.

Terrifyingly, they are also designed to be amoral, immortal, and insatiable… self-perpetuating entit[ies] which [are] designed to slip the bonds of individual human decency and personal responsibility…

[C]orporations are literally psychopaths.

In sum, large organizations, when seen for what they are, inspire fear.

Pullman: A Living Alethiometer?

Some have accused Pullman of heresy. Others see him as a living alethiometer—a truth-teller, an individual with the guts to speak truth to power.

Like the director of The Corporation, Pullman assaults the organization-as-psychopath head on.

Among other grievous “sins,” The Authority sanctioned child abuse. This pairing of authority with child abuse exemplifies the sociopathic nature of organizations.

In Pullman’s triology, Lord Azriel leads the assault on The Authority. And (italics mine):

During the final battle, the Authority is carried away from the Clouded Mountain… He is imprisoned in a crystal box, which keeps him alive but trapped.

Lyra Belacqua and Will Parry free him with the subtle knife, not knowing he is too weak to survive outside his box. He drifts apart and dies in a moment of happiness and peace, presumably to follow other characters’ precedent by merging with the cosmos.

If only all the ossified rulers of sociopathic organizations would drift apart and merge with the cosmos.

But first, we must see them as weak. We give them the power they appear to possess.

The Power of Fantasy

I find this idea exciting: fantasy can be simultaneously imaginative and powerful, it can not pull punches and really shake things up, and in arenas that matter.

Fantasy’s power comes from speaking to current realities, as Pullman does in his trilogy and Ursula K. Le Guin does in Voices, part of her Annals of the Western Shore series. Sometimes fantasy’s power comes from predicting future realities.

If you feel the crisis facing the Catholic church today is dimensionally different from similar past crises, you may agree with the predictive argument. If you feel the current crisis is essentially the same as similar past crises, you may not. Regardless, I trust you’ll hold to the notion that fantasy can be powerful at the same time it is imaginative, holding a mirror to our shadow nature.

With many others, I admire Pullman for sticking his neck out, risking the guillotine. I admire his strength in the face of the anti-HDM wrath.

I also see him smiling wryly and hear him saying, “This is how authority attacks its detractors, its sociopathic wrath only reveals its repressive agenda.”


Dr. Kirtland C. Peterson—”Cat” to his friends and colleagues—feeds his left brain with science, his right brain with the rich feast of fiction, including generous helpings of SF and fantasy.

Among his life’s highlights are sitting in the pilot’s seat of a shuttle prepping for launch at the Kennedy Space Center, and accepting Brannon Braga’s invitation to pitch Star Trek scripts at Paramount in LA.

Just finished reading Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book and Fragile Things. John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids remains half-read on my Kindle…

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