Outside the Government: They Keep Killing Suzie

(30 comments)

The real tragedy is, it's a better logo.

It’s December 3rd, 2006. Take That are at number one with “Patience,” just ahead of “Smack That” by Akon and Eminem. Nelly Furtado, Justin Timberlake, Emma Bunton, and Muse are also charting. In news, Michael Grade, by now BBC Chairman, is poached by ITV. The British government declines to extend copyright protection from 50 years to 95, though the EU eventually took care of it for them in 2011. Clive Goodman pleads guilty of conspiring to hack the phones of Princes William and Harry, and Augusto Pinochet has the heart attack that kills him.

Speaking of death, with They Keep Killing Suzie Torchwood finally comes to what, in hindsight, was always its theme. All of the wondrous spaces we’ve been exploring over the preceding seven hours turn out to be metaphors for the big one: the realm of the dead. This is not, strictly speaking, surprising or complicated. The argument that the wondrous cultural spaces that Torchwood has been playing with - ones we’ve already seen are deeply entwined with the larger British culture - are metaphors for death. The spirit world is in many ways the archetypal wondrous space - the one that all other wondrous spaces are just echoes and reflections of.

Jacques Derrida, who I don’t think I’ve annoyed you all by discussing yet, suggests that one of the key aspects of writing is its battle against death. Writing preserves the idea of the speaker after the moment of death, albeit in an altered form that is not so much the speaker as a haunting ghost of them. Similar ideas abound in media studies - Friedrich Kittler has, in his landmark Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, the lovely declaration that “The realm of the dead is as extensive as the storage and transmission capabilities of a given culture.” The idea permeates so many different sorts of books and movies as to be inescapable; it’s also the underlying fantasy of detective fiction, which Torchwood owes a huge debt to. Solving the mystery is a way of communicating with the deceased - receiving one final message from them.

And Torchwood, in particular, was always going to be about death. It had to be. The basic conceit of its lead character necessitated it. You can’t do a show whose central mystery is “why can’t Jack die” without having death become something of a major theme. You certainly can’t after combining the premise with a first episode about a glove that brings people back from the dead. The show committed itself to being about death from its first episode, a fact that continues to have profound implications right up until the last episode.

Given all of this, Torchwood’s actual take on death has to be one of the most striking things about it. In a show where everything has a wondrous dimension, where the world is vast and full of mysteries, and where some notion of the soul is clearly bought into on a fundamental level, we have a depiction of death that is frighteningly simple: when you die, you’re dead. There’s nothing. It is empty, dark, cold, and alone. There is simply oblivion. This was alluded to, in passing, back in Everything Changes, when Jack asks the first dead person what he saw, and gets the simple and chilling response: “Oh my God, there’s nothing.” But here it gets expanded, becoming Suzie’s entire worldview and motive. She’s willing to do terrible, awful things to survive, because, as she puts it, “Because life is all, Jack. You should know. I'd do anything to stay. Anything.” Which is, as motivations go, so blisteringly straightforward as to be wonderful.

But the larger philosophical issue is striking too. The decision to isolate the wondrous space that all the other ones are metaphors for and treat it as the one non-wondrous space available in a world of them is striking. It immediately serves, as Suzie’s succinct motivation demonstrates, to make all of the other wondrous spaces immediately justified, including, crucially, the mundane day-to-day world. Suzie’s motivation, in fact, encompasses this - it’s too simple to say she only wants to live. She also has a complex set of emotions around Gwen, who she views as “better” than her in some intrinsic and not entirely stated way that probably has a lot to do with the fact that Gwen has only repeated her “shagging Owen” mistake and not her “becoming a serial killer” one. What matters is not, in other words, merely being alive in the biological sense but in the sense of having a life.

Thus what drives Suzie is not merely her desire to not be in the oblivion of death, but also her desire to not have squandered life - to have a chance to be as good as Gwen. To have lived. This, of course, gets to another dimension of death as an underlying metaphor. Death is inextricably linked to the basic phenomenon of time’s passage. The fact that it marks a completely insurmountable void - that one cannot communicate with the dead - is the most cruel and absolute version of the basic inaccessibility of the past. Broadly speaking, death defines the spaces we cannot access. What is scary is not merely that death is the point after which there might only be an empty void of nothingness, but that death is also the point after which we cannot possibly still redeem our inaccessible past. Once we’re dead, we cannot possibly compete against our replacements.

This also takes it back into the territory of Doctor Who, which is, of course, endlessly concerned with the question of how the past can and cannot be accessed and interacted with. But where Doctor Who has the TARDIS, a machine that allows people to access the past and future directly instead of through memory and imagination, Torchwood has nothing. In Torchwood the past really is gone and the future really is unknowable. The twenty-first century may be when everything changes, but we cannot possibly know what it changes into. And we cannot revisit the past. Suzie cannot reclaim her old life, both because to do so would be to kill Gwen and because, fundamentally, the show doesn’t entertain the possibility that you ever could. The only thing anyone is able to do with the past is kill it, re-kill it, and, finally, bury it forever.

As ever, there are problems. The plot resolution in the back half is shambolic - all of the tension is a complete feint for the moment when Jack realizes that the glove is the solution. The problem is that he’s had the glove the whole time, so the resolution amounts to “we could have wrapped this up at any time.” The nonsense with the Emily Dickinson is also particularly egregious time-wasting. The basic plot structure is sound - the car chase is a nice set piece, Gwen dying so Suzie can live is a nice ticking clock, and the seaside final confrontation is a nice image. Several moments sing - in particular, everything that happens inside the hospital. "You're being shot in the head. Slowy," is particularly chilling.

Certainly, for all that the plot's on crack, the resolution is better than sitting around the Hub for the back half of the episode would have been. The problem is really the fact that the plot resolution is very obviously caused by nothing so much as hitting the fifty minute mark in the episode. It’s particularly annoying as it was a trivial problem to fix - you just lash together some technobabble that explains why the glove has to be brought to Suzie and Gwen instead of having the resolution take place back at Torchwood Hub while most of the cast stands pointlessly at the seaside. Indeed, it’s so easy to fix that the existence of the problem seems to speak volumes about how chaotic production must have gotten on the first season of Torchwood. (No surprise - the first season of Doctor Who was hectic, and they reacted to that by, effectively, adding another thirteen episodes for the next year.)

This is a severe problem elsewhere in the season, but right now it works out; this is some of the tightest and most disciplined Torchwood to date. Indira Varma, a truly phenomenal actress, certainly helps with that, as does the ruthlessly good characterization of Suzie - her casual killing of her father is a particularly artful moment of “oh dear, this character is completely and utterly unhinged, isn’t she?” There’s a focus to the episode that has at times been lacking. Part of this is surely that it’s a step away from the somewhat high concept antics of Countrycide or Cyberwoman and back towards the relatively complex structure of, say, Ghost Machine or Greeks Bearing Gifts, where the shape of the episode changes midway through. The initial murder investigation that expands outwards to Suzie is a nice twist - nice enough that the completely bonkers nature of Suzie’s plan doesn’t actually become jarring. But unlike Ghost Machine or Greeks Bearing Gifts, this is a story that retains the focus on the mythic that Chibnall’s high concept romps do. It’s a best of both worlds approach, and a successful blending of the two.

Finally, of course, there is the image of something existing in the darkness. One of the things that is often tricky about Davies’s Doctor Who is its relationship with Davies’s own atheism. On the one hand, the prospect of there being nothing after death is profoundly atheistic. On the other hand, Torchwood clearly has a notion of the soul. There is something to revive, even weeks or months after death, and that something is aware of having been dead. The nothing after death is where we go, but there’s still the very clear sense that there’s a “we” that gets to go somewhere. More to the point, the nothing is clearly a place in which it is possible for other things to exist.

What we have is something more complex than straightforward atheism. Davies is still offering a humanist message about the value of the life we have over some hypothetical afterlife, which is a nice message to see, and I say that as someone who is in no way an atheist. But that still exists in a world in which things beyond human comprehension exist. This is an important note for They Keep Killing Suzie to hit - the declaration that death is the only space to lack any wonder or mystery would be profoundly unsettling to Torchwood’s overall schematic. A purely atheistic solution is a poor fit for a show that acknowledges fairies as basically supernatural beings.

Instead death becomes the ultimate in unsympathetic wondrous spaces - a place that is wholly indifferent to humanity. The problem is not that the afterlife isn’t wondrous - it’s that in a real sense we don’t belong there. And the prospect of something moving in the darkness harkens back to the Lovecraftian imagery of The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit - things that are simply outside all frame of reference or human experience, existing only as an abyss in which humanity itself is drowned. This is, again, not an atheistic vision, but it’s also not a theistic vision in any sense. It’s a vision of a world that is so infinite in its wonder that the human capacity to experience it is simply insufficient to the task.

Except, of course, for the problem of Jack. Torchwood has continued to keep Jack oddly in the background; he’s its one established character, and yet he’s not had a focus episode. He is increasingly mysterious, a bridge between the program and what is, to it at least, an unknowable parent text. Jack understands what sort of world Torchwood is, but the narrative has been built to prevent him actually imparting that knowledge to any of the other characters, or, indeed, to the audience. And now we find out that an underlying force in the world of Torchwood is hostile to Jack. Whatever is keeping Jack alive is, we learn, wrong in a very fundamental sense - something that should not be.

It is tempting, between the structurally sound but politically problematic Greeks Bearing Gifts and the altogether sound They Keep Killing Suzie that Torchwood has turned a corner such that we can just let it be its own thing. Unfortunately, there’s one more episode to grapple with before that’s an option.

Comments

Iain Coleman 4 years, 3 months ago

The whole "something is coming in the darkness" thing was the one real bum note in an otherwise fine episode. This small but crucial addition to the "oh my God, there's nothing" of the first episode is the beginning of a long decline that will eventually bottom out with Undead Owen Harper wrestling a poorly-rendered anthropomorphised Death.

For some reason, SF shows seem unable to be or remain atheistic. However they start out, they always seem to end up with life after death, and gods or god-equivalents, and all that stuff. Contrast with detective drama, which is in effect entirely atheistic, even when written by writers as steeped in religion as Jimmy McGovern. Imagine a detective show in which the murder is revealed by the victim via a ouija board.

What SF is really channeling here (to coin a phrase) is the inheritance of 19th century spiritualism. Modern SF developed at a time when psychical investigation had made a decisive move into the territory of the physical sciences, attempting to establish a spirit realm along similar principles to the fields and waves that were being formalised in physics, and SF naturally took on some of these ideas and exploited them.

So embedded is this in SF that it takes, evidently, considerable deliberate effort to avoid being drawn along by that current. For a brief moment in Everything Changes, it looked as though Torchwood was going to strike out along a different creative path. It was refreshing and interesting. It didn't last.

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Chicanery 4 years, 3 months ago

A mystery partially solved by a ouija board/ghost? You mean like in Rashomon?

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Alex Antonijevic 4 years, 3 months ago

I don't find the whole "there's nothing" bit to be all that atheistic when it's a character like Suzie, who would be going straight to hell. That's if you follow the idea of hell as being endless nothing, which is how Doctor Who described the void.

Writing about death and what's out there is so hard, there's so many different theories and no way of really knowing for sure. Terry Pratchett does it best in Discworld - their death plays out according to their beliefs. I really like that idea.

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Spacewarp 4 years, 3 months ago

At first sight it's absurd. I mean, presumably if Death is a creature then it's been around at least as long as life on Earth...so why would it look like a human skeleton? In the same way as why would The Beast (from Satan Pit etc) also look human...since it's been around since before time began and thus before humanity or even the Milky Way galaxy even came into existence?

An often-used SF trope is that when we encounter something that is too far out of our experience (e.g. 4 dimensional creature) then what we see is the closest approximation to something that we can make sense of. A close example is the Vorlon Kosh from Babylon 5, who when seen in the flesh by several different alien races, appears to all of them as something different based on their individual culture.

This is a great handwave, as it is both economical (it only takes a couple of lines of dialogue) and high-concept, and would have been perfect in this situation. Why does Death look like Death? Because we know it's Death and so that's what we see.

Alternatively of course there's the "Daemon" explanation, where an alien that looks like a mythical creature because legends of that creature are based on memories of the alien. Which could also apply in this case - Death looks like traditional ideas of the Grim Reaper because that's actually what he looks like, and we've seen him before.

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Assad K 4 years, 3 months ago

Certainly the Master's most convoluted plots had nothing on Suzie's cunning plan to come back from the dead.

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landru 4 years, 3 months ago

That's an interesting point about Jack and Torchwood, in the show's narrative. Of course, the TV show Torchwood has to have a "stand alone" narrative, so they can't keep referencing things in Doctor Who. In this case, like the origins of Doctor Who, necessity creates the narrative. Captain Jack has to be mysterious.

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othemts 4 years, 3 months ago

"There is something to revive, even weeks or months after death, and that something is aware of having been dead. The nothing after death is where we go, but there’s still the very clear sense that there’s a “we” that gets to go somewhere. More to the point, the nothing is clearly a place in which it is possible for other things to exist."

This is one of those concepts that melts my mind like the idea of an ever-expanding universe that is somehow expanding it into itself.

I watched "Everything Changes" and then based on ratings/reviews of ensuing episodes skipped ahead to "They Keep Killing Suzie." From this episode I was hooked and watched every show to the end of series 3. It's good to be able to read Philip's analysis of shows I've actually seen again.

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coldwater1010 4 years, 3 months ago

"her casual killing of her father is a particularly artful moment of “oh dear, this character is completely and utterly unhinged, isn’t she?” "

Suzie casually killing her father because of some unspecified slight on his part is probably the least insane thing she does. In episode one, after running into Gwen and realising she remembers nothing, Suzie proceeds to make sure Gwen remembers everything before killing herself so she can put into action this pretty convoluted, not to mention flawed plan to return from the dead because all she wants to do is live because she knows there's nothing else. I guess just walking away at the first sign that she hadn't yet been rumbled and hopping on the first plane to anywhere would have been too mundane for her. It also makes her killing all those people in the first episode more sport than scientific exploration because to be able to come up with this plan she'd have to have know the inner workings of the glove pretty darn well by that point.

I thought this episode was not only suggesting that there was an afterlife, but that Suzie apparently spent it stalking Gwen otherwise how else is she so convinced that Gwen is better than her and everyone loves her better than her. Because it's Gwen and it's just so apparent?

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Adam Riggio 4 years, 3 months ago

It's a fascinating story, the evolution of sci-fi's relationship with religion. The genre developed in this period when the psychic sciences had just as much credibility as the physical sciences. The psychic sciences drifted into obscurity and Hollow Earth territory (great post on the science of the Daleks hollowing out the Earth, by the way, though I still think Phil's explanation of their reasoning is best) as they failed to find any of the entities they postulated.

Periodically, we find otherwise atheist science-fiction, even in the hard sci-fi genres developed with fealty to what Phil has so eloquently called Big-Ass Science, engaging with spiritual matters. As if the failure of the psychic sciences left a hole in human identity that spirituality and religion previously served, so science-fiction sought ways to account for the spiritual in a hard science worldview.

But I don't think we need that. I actually have a collaborative piece on this subject being published at social-epistemology.com at the end of August, which explains my own perspective. The yearning for spirituality is based on a premise that knowledge of the mechanics of how the world works somehow reduces its majesty: awe at the universe requires mystery and spirituality. So we find science-fiction periodically attempting to articulate a sense of awe and mystery for a secular world.

Yet that's a false premise to me. The real source of awe in the universe is really the source of its awesomeness (in the current sense of the term). Oddly, for all the Davies era focussed on the spiritual dimensions of Doctor Who, the Moffat era gave me the best line to characterize where awe in a secular universe comes from (with a little extra influence from some lines of Alan Moore). You look around and examine in intense detail all the mechanisms of the universe and the incredible unlikelihood of any singular body being just as it is, and all that knowledge is inherently fascinating.

The attitude of secular/atheist awe at the universe: "Look how cool this stuff is!"

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Ross 4 years, 3 months ago

Finally, of course, there is the image of something existing in the darkness. One of the things that is often tricky about Davies’s Doctor Who is its relationship with Davies’s own atheism. On the one hand, the prospect of there being nothing after death is profoundly atheistic. On the other hand, Torchwood clearly has a notion of the soul. There is something to revive, even weeks or months after death, and that something is aware of having been dead. The nothing after death is where we go, but there’s still the very clear sense that there’s a “we” that gets to go somewhere. More to the point, the nothing is clearly a place in which it is possible for other things to exist.

The complexity of Davies's atheism is something that struck me on watching this handful of episodes. I know lots of Doctor Who fans watched Torchwood and crowed "See! See! Definitive proof! There is no afterlife in the Doctor Who universe! No soul! No God! Proven forever! Suck it!", on the basis of people who have died coming back and reporting to have experienced going to a vast empty place where there was something in the darkness. That's not the absence of an afterlife; that's fairly close to the afterlife in classical Greek mythology.

(Of course, the possibility also exists that Davies is simply not a very introspective guy and hasn't thought deeply about his atheism, and therefore didn't realize that a positive experiential nothing that you go to is actually still an afterlife because he lacks the imagination to understand the difference. But that requires discarding the bulk of what is evidenced by the rest of his work in favor or "He's an idiot," which seems unlikely. But I guess you do get people like Hideo Kojima whose creative output alternates so quickly between brilliant insight and comical buffoonery that you could wrap a coil of wire around it and generate electricity)

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Spacewarp 4 years, 3 months ago

Personally I have no problem with there being a "we" that goes somewhere after death, as I don't believe in anything approaching a soul. I tend to view consciousness as a process of life that has evolved to a sufficient level of complexity as to erroneously believe that it is alive. "Man does not think. He only thinks he thinks."

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Seeing_I 4 years, 3 months ago

You guys have covered the "there's nothing" aspect pretty well, but I wonder why nobody thought to ask if maybe our embodied consciousness just isn't capable of recalling or understanding or containing true knowledge of what's out there.

Likewise, I wonder if Phil has any plans to write about Davies' The Second Coming, which I found a fascinating if flawed piece of work (those tricksy lot resolutions again!) tackling very similar themes as Doctor Who and Torchwood.

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Iain Coleman 4 years, 3 months ago

Adam: "just as much credibility" is stretching it quite a bit.Psychic research was always regarded as disreputable by the scientific establishment, who generally thought that the few scientists who did pursue such studies were the victims of charlatanry and self-delusion. Which, to be fair, they were. The founding of the Society for Psychical Research was an attempt to put this field on the same level as the respectable scientific establishment, but it didn't work.

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Daibhid C 4 years, 3 months ago

He wrote a bit about The Second Coming in his "This is where the major players of the relaunch were just before it happened" Pop Between Realities.

http://www.philipsandifer.com/2013/04/tardis-eruditorum-pop-between-realities.html

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Alan 4 years, 3 months ago

Two points:

1. "There's nothing!" in the context presented on Torchwood does nothing to disprove the existence of an afterlife in terms that a theist would find persuasive. If we accept (as theists do) that there is a "soul" and that it is the soul which goes on post mortem to experience the afterlife, then of course, the soulless husk left behind after the soul's departure would have no knowledge of the afterlife and would interpret the lack of sensory input as nothingness. Essentially, the glove raises zombies which have the memories of their former lives up until the point at which biological processes ceased. Why would we expect the body to remember what happened to the soul after its departure?

2. For that matter, what's really so scary about the idea of "there's nothing"? Most atheists already accept that theory and it doesn't fill them with existential angst. Frankly, if there is no afterlife and death is the equivalent of taking a deep peaceful nap from which you never awaken, surely that's preferable to the Christian alternative: After death, a capricious and omnipotent deity assigns you an afterlife based on arbitrary criteria selected from two options -- eternal pain in hell or eternal mind-numbing bliss spent groveling at the feet of the Creator. I have no idea what happens after we die, but it's been a long time since I've been naive enough to consider the Southern Baptist interpretation of heaven to be desirable. YMMV.

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Iain Coleman 4 years, 3 months ago

I've just had a thought. Does the casting of the 12th Doctor mean we can expect a Pop Between Realities on The Thick of It? I do hope so.

(Of course, Capaldi has a long and distinguished acting career, but his casting was uniformly reported in terms of his most famous part to date, Malcolm Tucker.)

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Iain Coleman 4 years, 3 months ago

There are some Christians who think that hell is empty, such is the infinite mercy of God. I find that a much more attractive notion than the fire and brimstone that some other Christians invoke with such evident delight.

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Seeing_I 4 years, 3 months ago

What's scary is the idea if being eternally conscious of being lost in the void.

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Seeing_I 4 years, 3 months ago

Cheers, don't know how I missed that.

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BerserkRL 4 years, 3 months ago

when Jack asks the first dead person what he saw, and gets the simple and chilling response: “Oh my God, there’s nothing.”

Of course the conceptual problem with this becomes clear once we make it explicit: "During the period when I had ceased to exist, I experienced my condition and noticed that it was one of nonexistence." As Plato and Epicurus pointed out (albeit with opposite morals in mind), if death is nonexistence then nobody can possibly experience it. Which is why the Torchwood conception of the afterlife subsequently gets inevitably pulled from "nothingness" to "a vast, dark, mostly empty somethingness."

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BerserkRL 4 years, 3 months ago

they always seem to end up with life after death, and gods or god-equivalents, and all that stuff. Contrast with detective drama

It's instructive that Arthur Conan Doyle, who not only wrote lots of stories with supernatural elements, but himself believed in them rather thoroughly (including the famous fairy photos, in comparison with which the spiritualist stuff looks positively sober and scientific), and saddled us with his dullest novel, Land of Mist, by trying to shoehorn his obsession with spiritualism into the Prof. Challenger series, nevertheless had the good aesthetic sense not to introduce the supernatural into the Sherlock Holmes stories. It wasn't a commitment to realism on his part, since from Conan Doyle's point of view supernatural elements wouldn't have been unrealistic; the problem with the supernatural was clearly that it wouldn't work in Holmes's universe, however much it may pervade ours.

He could have made Land of Mist be about Holmes; it would in a way have made more sense than his actual choice of Challenger, since to make the story work he had to make Challenger start out a skeptic, which he hadn't remotely been before that book. (In one of the previous books Challenger even explicitly affirmed his belief in an afterlife, which now in Land of Mist he suddenly has always denied.) Challenger is always a Mulder, not a Scully; and his Scullyisation in the third book (for purposes of subsequent Mulderisation) rings false. But ACD rightly sensed that having Holmes convert from skepticism to spiritualism would be even worse than having Challenger do it.

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Iain Coleman 4 years, 3 months ago

On its own, in the context of its scene, that line could equally well mean "My death and ressurection were subjectively continuous: I had no experience of anything that might be termed an afterlife". It's only subsequent stories that go unambiguously into the version you describe.

I'm reminded of a dream I had, when I was about 17 or so. I'd been on a bit of a Dostoyevsky kick, and had read the execution scene in The Idiot before going to sleep. I dreamt, very vividly, that I was being strung up from a lampost on Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow, by a mob. I died, and experienced utter, silent blackness. "If this is the afterlife," I remember thinking, "it's a bit disappointing." I floated for a while in the dark void, until I gradually realised that the floating sensation was me lying on my bed under a warm duvet, and the blackness was because my eyes were shut. A pleasant discovery.

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Spacewarp 4 years, 3 months ago

Well I once wrote a story from the point of view of a woman, even though I'm not one. So I guess Davies the atheist can write a script with afterlife-ish elements in it, even though he doesn't believe in them.

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Ewa Woowa 4 years, 3 months ago

Wow, when I was 17 all I dreamt about were breasts... Kudos to you, Sir!

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Spacewarp 4 years, 3 months ago

As I understand it, hell still is empty, and heaven only has angels and God in it at present. Because nobody ends up in heaven or hell until the Day of Judgement. The Bishop of Durham addressed this in an interview a couple of years ago where he pointed out that your average Christian is wrong to think that Aunty Gladys has died and gone to heaven. She's not up there yet, and even the concept of "up there" isn't what we think it is.

http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1710844,00.html

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Jesse 4 years, 3 months ago

Doctor Who needs to do an episode titled "They Keep Sinking Atlantis."

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Mark Johnson 4 years, 3 months ago

The "The real tragedy is, it's a better logo." was very Lawrence Miles (the blog years). Well played.

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Jack Graham 4 years, 3 months ago

"The real tragedy is, it's a better logo." I agree.

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Robert Lloyd 4 years, 3 months ago

Well, you can have an afterlife without God, or gods. You can have God or gods without an afterlife too.

So Davies' atheism could still stand even as he posits a form of afterlife.

He could also simply be writing an afterlife as fiction regardless of his personal atheism.

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Rodolfo Piskorski 3 years, 2 months ago

Actually, that was not Derrida's point. Writing is not so much a battle against death, as it is the intrusion of death in the moment of the embodiment of speech in the written sign. In other words, writing kills the writer/speaker/subject because it can do without him or her. It doesn't preserve.

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