Friday, June 23, 2017

Religion in Fantasy #1: Introduction

Everyone thinks that they know religion. I've haven't yet met anyone off the street who doesn't think of themselves as expert as the most knowledgeable expert. We live in a culture steeped in religion, so its natural to feel like an expert. I honor your experience, yet I hope to take you beyond that into something new.

I'll use the analogy of connoisseurs and chefs. The connoisseur is an expert of food and its qualities, learning to appreciate the experience in a deep manner. Even with so much expertise, you would never confuse a connoisseur with a chef. A chef's job is to gather ingredients, arrange menus, and present to the connoisseur food worth paying for, a quality culinary experience for the money. Although a connoisseur may appreciate what the chef does, he does not confuse himself for a chef. And although the chef may possess many skills that belong to the connoisseur, his skills must be far broader and deeper because he must navigate a far more complex set of decisions.

In the same way, as a religion creator, you will be the chef, creating religions for others to experience. You will be judged not by your intentions, but by your results. You will use your accumulated knowledge and skills to create something that the reader will pay for, and if you've done your job right, rave about and come back for more.

There is one truth that both religion and cooking share: nobody knows everything, and even the simple things often take considerable knowledge and skill to appreciate, if not master.

To begin this discussion, here's a brain dump of possible topics. This list should give your something to think about even if you read nothing else in this series.

I don't promise to hit this list in any particular order.

  • What is Religion? What is religion in a fantasy context?
  • Basic Approaches towards Religion
    • Real
    • Uncertain
    • A lie
    • Not a lie
    • Flavor text
    • Ignored
  • Cookie cutter religion
  • Religion like what I already know
  • Wicca, Neo-Paganism, and other modern notions
  • Like pagans are shown in stories/media/movies
  • Religion Tropes
  • Temples and high priests
  • Religious Places
  • Fundamental relationship to divine
    • Patron
    • Placation/fear
    • Doom
    • Estrangement
    • Unfamiliarity
  • Big Gods and Little Gods
  • Gods of X and Y
  • Religion as Magic System
  • Religion as monetary exchange
  • Worship by
    • Prayer
    • Dance
    • Song
    • Ritual and Ceremony
    • Event
    • Structures
    • Location
    • Times and dates
    • Memorial
    • By Classes
    • By Gender
    • Public vs Private worship
    • What is this worship thing anyway?
    • Idols, statues, and imagery
    • Myths, legends, and stories
    • Symbols
    • History, religion changing over time
    • Holy things
    • Language
    • Differences by location and cult
    • Written word
    • Taboos
    • Life Events
  • Priests as 
    • Imitators of the divine
    • Officials of the divine
    • Bureaucrats
  • Fun Gods and Not So Fun Gods
  • Godlike Beings
  • What are the functional limits of godhood?
  • The economics of a temple
  • Duties
  • If gods are real, does that make truth real?
  • Relative morality and divine relationships
  • Religion as license to break rules
  • Accurate vs Inaccurate beliefs
  • The religion is lying to you
  • Religion as weapon: heresy and crusades
  • Gods and civilization
  • Who controls the religion?
  • Priests, shamans, monks, and other assorted holy men and women
  • Life, Death, and Rebirth
  • The underworld and the afterlife
  • Judgement
  • Heaven and Cleanliness
  • Religion and Individual
  • Religion and Society
  • Religion and the State
  • Religion International
  • Religion: Us against Them
  • Religion and Oppression
  • Religion and Freedom
  • Literally Real or Totally a Lie
  • No Religion at all - dodging the bullet?
  • Pantheons
  • Pantheons not getting along
  • Titans, demons, devils, and all sorts of other immortals
  • Big gods vs local gods vs household and local gods
  • Exclamation points, by Crom!
  • Religion and Law
  • Religion or not religion? Cultural differences.
  • Life Events
    • Birth
    • Marriage
    • Naming
    • Death
    • Maturity
    • Revelation
    • Childhood
    • Youth
    • Maturity
    • Old Age
  • Magic
    • Divination
    • Revelation
    • Summoning
    • Divine Favor
    • Prayer
    • Healing
    • Scripture
    • Transformation
    • Resurrection
    • Demons and Devils
    • Possession and Channeling
    • Ancestors
    • Fortune
    • Divine Parentage
  • Hidden Knowledge
  • The Dual Nature of the Divine


Sunday, June 18, 2017

The Blue Sword (1982)

The Blue Sword (1982) by Robin McKinley is the first of her two Damar novels. In this fantasy-romance, a young woman is swept away by a desert king, but only to train her for war.

Robin McKinley seems to have two modes for me: she's either engaging or long winded. This books falls onto long-winded, as she could easily have told this tale in half the number of words. While nicely written, as is usual for Robin, for me the story falls into the dull and tedious category, with an extra layer of pointless thrown in just to be sure. Most of what happens is a long justification for why a woman can be in war and fight her enemies. However, if you remember that this is the 1980s, when few people making women heroes, justification seemed needed. (It wasn't needed. Other authors simply blew past the justification part and went straight into the adventure part.)

For an adventure novel, it's pacing is quite relaxed, walking our hero through all sorts of things for most of the book.

I found the concept of kelar interesting, a way of interacting with magic that is one part revelation and one part manifestation. Kelar shows you what you need to know, but also provides what you need to accomplish the deed. It is magic, but never quite controlled magic, so its appearance in the story changes the story's direction. I enjoy inexact magic systems.

If this book set out to do anything, I think that it missed most of what it aimed for. It's not enough of a romance to satisfy a romance reader, not enough of a fantasy to satisfy a fantasy reader, and not enough of an adventure novel to satisfy and adventure reader. While Robin handles both romance and fantasy far more deftly, her handling of adventure seems deficient.

I can't pronounce this a bad book, because it does hold together, it's just not my slice of bacon.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

The Well of Shiuan (1978)

The Well of Shiuan (1978) by C.J. Cherryh continues the tale of Morgaine and Vanye. Morgaine is an otherworldly sort, dedicated to the destruction of gates, and Vanye is the sword and sorcery minion who's out point of view character for most of the story.

This was her second publication, and here she addressed many issues that haunted her first work. In this book, she creates a much better feel for location and place, she better articulates goals, implications, and moral conflicts, and she generally keeps the through line of the narrative far clearer. In the sort of tale where moral ambiguity usually doesn't exist, this tale hinges on those ambiguities. However, even with all the improvements, there are still places where the tale feels muddled and ill directed.

Also gone is the stiff dialog of her former work. The dialog in this novel, while still not fully naturalist, has greatly loosened up, The characters no longer feel like they're always reading from cue cards.

Interestingly, Cherryh begins the story from a third character's view, that of Jhirun, a young woman that lives in the marshlands. I found her the most present and engaging of all the characters, and I wished that we had spent far more time with her point of view. She gives us the world and the complexities in a way that no other character does, with a vulnerability that no other character has. Because she's so unspecial, her actions have consequences where a hero's never would. To me, that made her a more interesting character than any other in the book.

Parts of the book still felt forced, while other parts seemed aimless. Cherryh still has a ways to go before she hits her stylistic best, but with this tale, I begin to see those traits that would make her later books so interesting.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Alphadia 2 (2013)

Alphadia 2 (2013) is an old school RPG for the Android operating system. By the aspect ration, I must assume that the game was ported from a platform with a squarer screen. The game is a direct sequel to Alphadia, featuring the same world and several characters from the last game, such as Enah, the android. Most of the game mechanics remain identical, including rings and infusing.

The overall play difficulty of this sequel was noticeably more challenging than the first installment. While I could cruise through most fights on auto, the fights themselves ground down my party. At times, I found myself constantly healing party members after every fight. The fights could also be grinding while exploring, with encounters erupting as frequent intervals. Scout Orbs are available to avoid fights, but they don't last long.

While the primary artwork was pixels and sprites, each character had a high res portrait for conversations that looked clean.

For the most part, I didn't care about the characters or the plot, not that you need much plot for dungeon delving. Where the story hewed to "go there," I was happy enough. I wasn't ever in doubt about where to go. When the story skewed towards the actual plot, I didn't care, with tiresome conversation following tiresome conversation.

This game had a mission mode which I found annoying. While most missions were straight forward, and therefore fun, some missions that required finding certain items dragged on and on because those items didn't drop. By the end of the game, I still hadn't found enough of one drop type, even with farming, to complete the first set of basic missions. While the missions did offer a mission store which used mission currency, I found it cheaper and easier to just purchase the items from a vendor. This made 95% of all store items useless to me. One early mission didn't work right when the receiving clerk refused to accept my items. Since that part of the game was bugged, I didn't go any further. Later on, I found out that you were supposed to give those items to somebody else, which is completely stupid because you are supposed to give all mission items to the receiving clerk.

I found the ending tougher than expected. I'm used to hard endings, but this one seemed harder than it ought to be. I think it's an example of, "you must win by playing a certain way" style of ending, where I played the game wrong, so I lost repeatedly. If I had really liked the game, I would have thrown myself at the ending, but as I don't care, I don't find myself well motivated. I may try the ending again, but I won't work hard at it.

On the whole, I'd give this game a medium review. It's entertaining enough, but there's nothing here to fall in love with.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

The Phantom Tollbooth (1961)

The Phantom Tollbooth (1961) by Norton Juster is a charming morality play written as a boy’s improbable adventure. While often silly, descending into lexigraphic literalism with aplomb, the story engages that childish delight in bending, folding, and mutilating possibility, while at the same time using absurdism to show the natural limits of those possibilities. Written in a light and breezy style, the story rolls along at a steady pace, ready to engage minds with short attentions and big imaginations.

Friday, June 9, 2017

The Gate of Ivrel (1976)

The Gate of Ivrel (1976) by C.J. Cherryh reads like something old and something new. The stiff writing style, formalized language, and dense narrative reminds me of mid-20th century fantasy and SF that was rapidly falling from fashion in the 70's. Written in the sword and sorcery style of the day, the tale primarily revolves around humans, and just how bad humans are to each other before any magic gets into the mix. We have all the prerequisite oaths, oath breaking, tribal codes, and exaggerated systems of masculine honor.

Stunning in this work is the introduction of a woman as the bad-ass of the series. Like the best of all action-hero women, she never compromises nor apologizes for her behavior. She's a woman on a mission that leaves thousands dead, but that doesn't mean that she likes it. With this 70's action hero goes a truly terrible sword, one in the tradition of Stormbringer, one that gives any honest reader pause.

Despite the surface narrative of two tough sword swingers, the story carries and undercurrent of imperfection and weakness, where the lead characters of Morgaine and Vanye show themselves humans underneath their layers of toxic-masculinity. If anything, the book works against the very notion of sword and sorcery, where the toughest and baddest win. Underneath all her layers, Morgaine is a woman on a mission that's too big to go forward, but impossible to go back. Vanye is a man who's lost his male honor, but which also gives him the freedom to roam free of the hyper-masculine narrative so tied to the genre. He's tough, not because of his hardened outside, but because of his well developed inside. When he becomes Morgaine's follower, he seconds himself to the woman without hesitation or qualms, nor is he so tough that he stands unbreakable before the world.

The book appears to be among her earliest works and it shows. The story has deep flaws. My biggest issue was with place. All the places of this tale blurred, one into another, until I didn't know where we were coming from or going to. There are places where characters seemed in the wilderness, yet other characters come out of the woodwork like they're in Times Square on a Saturday afternoon, a little too like the sudden twists and turns of a cheap movie. And like a cheap movie, the scenes between often prove dull and tedious, providing a little information, but mostly wasting your time.

Despite the appearance of being well developed characters, both Morgaine and Vanye often come across rather flat and dull, just going about their way while continuously stumbling into danger. Wandering about also describes the basic plot. We do learn what we need to know, but somehow the elements never come together into a cohesive whole, even at the end. All the plot lines feel like spaghetti.

While I did enjoy some bits, I mostly have mixed feelings about the book. As a novel, its not really strong enough to stand out on its own merits, its innovations mostly smothered by its mediocrities.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

The Greek Ruling Couple Meta-Narrative

I was thinking about the story of Perseus the other day, and what gobsmacked me about the story was the absolutely pointless rescue of Andromeda. What was behind that? What narrative purpose did it serve? The only answer that I could come up with was that a queen was a necessary component of ruling as a king. In that vein, I will posit the Greek Ruling Couple meta-narrative.

According to Greek myth, Zeus was the king of the gods, while Hera was the queen. You can't pick and choose, having one or the other. You must have both aspects, both male and female, the make a stable throne. Zeus and Hera, Cronus and Rhea, Uranus and Gaia, these each represented the paradigmatic couples. If we dig a little deeper, we notice that we know the names of both the king and queen in all the stories, which is odd because you normally don't expect to know all the queens, especially in the Trojan War, where the relationships between these couples are significant.

The Greek Ruling Couple Meta-Narrative looks like this:

  • A kingdom requires both a king and a queen.
  • When a kingdom is missing either, it is incomplete and unstable.
  • Happiness ensues when the ruling couple is united again.
  • The ruling couple exists for life. Nothing short of death divides the divine couple.
  • They are the symbolic embodiment of Zeus and Hera on earth.
  • Each rules over their own gendered sphere.
  • When things go awry, the situation can't be resolved unless the couple is reunited or somebody dies.

We see this strongly with Odysseus. He spends his years traveling home, waylaid by multiple women, but these women aren't enough to make him happy. He will only be set right when he reunites with his wife. Meanwhile, Penelope is desperately fending off suitors, because she doesn't believe that her husband is dead, and if he's alive, the gods will surely frown on the new divine couple, wrecking havoc on the kingdom. The story ends when Odysseus and Penelope are reunited, the divine couple is formed again, and those who would blaspheme the divine couple murdered by the score.

With this understanding, the abduction of Helen becomes all the more terrifying. Helen leaves her role as divine queen, but that's something that she can't do. There's no way possible for Menelaus to ignore this slight, for while Helen is alive, he cannot remarry and form a new divine couple. His kingdom is literally doomed because it has lost its feminine elements. The loss of  Helen is not just a loss to ego, but a stab to the very heart of  of the Laconia. He has no choice but to respond, and his allies join in, because they too recognize the blasphemous act. The war cannot end until the divine couple is restored. (Of note, when one person finally won Helen's hand, all other suitors swore to act against any who would break up the marriage. They all understood the important of a divine couple.)

Compare this to Agamemnon, whose wife took a lover during the war, then murdered him on his return. This is not only shocking because a queen assaults a king, or a wife kills a husband, but because the action is a total abrogation of the divine roles of each ruler.

This interpretation makes the story of Oedipus all the more shocking, as if all the relationships in Oedipus weren't shocking enough already. Oedipus makes an utter twisted horror of the divine couple.

During the Trojan war, Achilles falls for his slave girl, Chryseis. Even though they weren't married, you can see how a young man would project the divine couple idea onto a possible future bride. (She was from a good family and would have made an acceptable wife.) For Agamemnon to step in and attempt to take her away would not only have been a social affront, but perceived as religious affront by Achilles, one strong enough to demand an extreme response.

Resolving these issues takes either reconciliation or death. You can see how that sort of extreme solution would result in a series of happy endings or bloodbaths or both, which helps makes sense of the body count in Greek tragedies.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Cheapcore Gaming

I'm a gamer. I've been gaming since 1984 with Wizardry! However, I usually don't refer to myself as a hardcore gamer because I started gaming before that term was invented. (Yeah, call me old.) Back in the 90's, I got tired of spending lots of games and computers, so I decided to always buy from the discount gaming rack and only buy cheap computers. The combination worked beautifully. I called this cheap core gaming.

Back then, with massive jumps in graphics every year, many people downplayed older games as terrible. Games that had great street reputations when originally published had quickly become pariahs because of their comparatively bad graphics. Being cheap, I didn't care. If the game was good two years ago, it would still be good today. And I was right. I spent lots of time playing good games at a cheap price. I also spent lots of time buying terrible games at a cheap price, but I didn't feel horrible for it because I hadn't spent much anyway.

In general, I tended to spend a month playing any game unless I particularly liked it or it really lent itself to more playing. I usually spent 6 hours a day on any game, more on weekends. That's a whole lot of gameplay, which is why I tended to swap games frequently.

These days, I'm still on the cheapcore treadmill. I go through games slower as I have a child and more life activities keeping me distracted. My eyes also can't stay on the screen as ridiculously long as they used to. Because I don't keep up, the depth of games available to me grows, meaning that there are more good games out there than I can easily play through. This low price makes even middling games like Mass Effect playable (if Bioware games can be called playable). No matter how disgusted I got with the game, I knew that I hadn't spent much, so all the tedious planet exploration, cut scenes, and imposed character building didn't hurt that much. I began with low expectations which were easily met.

The advantage of cheapcore is that walking away from a game is possible. I'm not stuck striving to get the maximum amount of money out of my title, and I sure as hell don't feel tempted by most DLCs or other micro-transactions.

Some games are harder than other. Sometimes I'm up for the challenge, willing to work long hours because I'm enjoying the experience, but at other times I just don't give a fuck because the difficulty is perverse rather than entertaining. I strongly prefer a game with good flow over a game with extreme challenges. I especially like the combination of good flow with optional challenges, but I have to admit that I'm not a details dink, so challenges that require vast expertise of game mechanics get lost on me. When playing I tend to find what's effective enough to win and run with that. For example, while playing Fallout 4, I quickly realized that the modding system allowed me to make the equipment that I wanted, but once I had that equipment, modding just stopped being useful. I could have gotten more out of the system, but I didn't care enough to bother.

The real gem of cheapcore is that you have self-permission to ignore all hyperbole and fanboyism, both for and against any game. You feel unafraid to play bad games because there's not much on the line, and even more pleasant, you get surprised by good games like Portal. You also take chances on games that you ordinarily wouldn't play at all. In that way, I think that I'm harder core than any hardcore gamer, who only play AAA titles at full price, and then only those games that they like. While they're stuck in their little hardcore world, I get to stroll about and meet the neighbors.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Limits of Sexism Detection Metrics

I see a few tools used to show sexism in narrative. Used correctly, they can yield useful information, but used incorrectly, or maliciously, show sexism anywhere the user wants to put sexism.

The Bechdel test is sometimes used to show sexism, but it's there to show one particular form of sexism, that of assigning parts in motion pictures. The ultimate purpose of the test is to increase the frequency of women in film and provide more job opportunities. The basic assertion is that if women are 50% of the population, they should get 50% of the visual representation across the entire industry. It's not there to show that any one film is sexist, its there to show that Hollywood has a sexist bias in the way that roles are written and assigned.

Agency is also used to show sexism in stories. What sort of agency does a woman have? Used well, the question opens up interesting inquiries. Used poorly, it becomes a bludgeon, insensitive to the very goal that it was intends to support.

The primary problem with agency as a metric is that agency exists within the context of a story, while the analysis can happen outside the context. With a loss of context, the tool becomes unreliable.

The second and even greater issue is that lack of agency doesn't correlate with sexism. Agency is used as a tool in many stories, sliding about, to increase and decrease the emotions of the reader. In many action genres, agency boils down to heroes and villains, where even the heroes find their agency challenged. Without a firm idea of genre, without a firm counting of how many male characters vs. female characters lose agency, the question of agency is likely to mislead you.

Objectification can also mislead for the same reason. Out of context, objectification can be seen as separating out women, but in context, these characters may suffer the same fate that many other secondary and tertiary characters face.

The Smurfette principle fails when the user fails to account for the status and importance of a woman in a story. Only if a woman is a universal embodiment of generic femininity among an otherwise diverse male cast does the part rise to the status of Smurfette. Women that are distinct characters aren't Smurfettes, even if they are the only woman. One woman among men isn't necessarily sexist.

The biggest issue is that these tests exist to detect sexism against women. While a noble goal, the failure of these tools to detect other forms of sexism leaves any analysis weaker than it should be. It stands to reason that the more forms of sexism that you can show, the stronger your argument that sexism exists. In many films, the sexism against women is often the weakest and most difficult to show style of sexism, while the sexism by men against men is rampant and easily documented.

A focus only on women means that superficial changes can be applied to films that make the film seem less sexist, but really makes the situation worse. Such an approach has led to the rise of the "strong woman" in film, one who's functionally a bland and an otherwise forgettable character. Such a change is not a real improvement as strong woman are written to seem empowering but more importantly, they are written to avoid offense. In essence, one has changed one stock, interchangeable character for another. At least a stock, sexist woman gets to spout a different point of view containing a different ethic.

Bored of the Rings

Bored of the Rings (1969) was a shameless, opportunistic, money-grubbing attempt to make money off the then-current Lord of the Rings craze. It says so right in the introduction. Created by Harvard Lampoon, the parody throws Tolkien's work into the mud, along with popular culture, some stray dogs, an itinerant card shark, and a frat full of drunk, oversexed men with beer goggles. The results is about as stupid as you'd expect, with unexpected moments of the sublime.

In short, this book is a good way to ditch a few hours and have a few laughs along the way.

Do expect the book to offend. That's its purpose. If you aren't offended, then they didn't do their job right.

The book follows the adventures of Frito and Spam, Goodgulf the wizard, and a variety of other brands and product placements that should have made the writers rich, but likely didn't because this was the era before product placements. Their goal is to destroy the Ring, and between here and there, have more interesting adventures that Tolkien's original book. At least they know how to get in, tell the joke, and get out.

While most jokes are fully adolescent in their executions, a few rise to beautiful sublimity, such as the translations of the various elven songs.

The humor comes come densely packed and thorough, requiring your attention for every sentence. Almost every sentence contains humor, slapstick, or parody to some degree. You don't have to wait for the humor to begin in the least. In fact, the humor is more like the running of the jokes, filling the streets with every humor form known to man and elf.

While the book asserts that's its a masterpiece of parody, that's just it praising itself. As humor goes, its a good diversion, but rarely rises beyond the level of opportunistic.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Patriarchy and Matriarchy as Meta-Narrative

We can use both Patriarchy and Matriarchy as meta-narrative. Don't get these meta-narratives confused with the same things in real life. Meta-narratives are rather idealized and tuned to work inside stories.

  • Patriarchy or Matriarchy (P/M) is the natural arrangement of power within the society because the idealized characteristics of P/M are naturally the best for managing society. Society works best when P/M is honored. 

  • The other choice is naturally the worst arrangement of society because its approach yields unstable results.

You can see how this meta-narrative hews close enough to sexism to get confused with sexism. They're so close that they're almost co-joined twins. But do note the differences. The P/M meta-narrative is about society as a whole, about which approach and values best leads to a stable and prosperous society for all.

Where sexism really comes in is that one gender and its characteristics is categorically better than the other regardless of individuality or context. Society is best run by women because they are not ruled by men's lust for battle. Men are best for ruling because they are not carried away by petty emotions. Each point of view is equally sexist. While it may be true that any group, in general, has a set of characteristics, its also true that any group contains all possibilities. In a group of women, some will lust for war, and in a group of men, some will seek out peace. Groups cannot be devolved into something homogeneous because that's a basic denial of humanity. Where you reduce someone to their gender, that's sexism.

Unfortunately, there's no innate characteristic that naturally makes any single person or group actually better at any ruling system. Variation means that some individuals and groups are better than others. About the only non-sexist, non-anything-ist that we can use as a meta-narrative is that a sufficient diversity of people who each bring their own competence is the best at solving any problem, especially if they can reach out and secure additional expertise when needed.

What's that called? I have no idea. I'll call it "diversitist."

Diversitist:

  • Rule best comes through a diversity of peoples, genders, experiences, and expertises.
  • Insufficient diversity creates problems.
  • Problems are solved by expanding diversity.
  • The skills and knowledge of each contributor matters more than their race, gender, or creed.
  • Nobody deserves a seat at the table for any attribute that they're born with or two.
  • Sitting at the table is earned, not given.


Sexism and Chivalry

* Disclaimer: I'm not an expert in chivalric narratives, so I my opinion below may be suspect.

Chivalry is often thought sexist, but once you look at its structure, it turns into a far more interesting and complex beast.

We know Chivalry from the middle ages, where knights rode off to rescue ladies, which today is taken as sexist behavior. But if we hold sexism up against an informed looked at themedieval period chivalric narrative, does this claim hold up?

The chivalric meta-narrative is based on the culture and practices of the middle ages, especially those at the upper end of the social scale. This narrative codified a set of behaviors, relationships, and obligations. There was a very formalized relationship between Lord and Vassal, but also a formalized relationship between Knight and Lady. Because these days were literally dangerous, knights were assigned to ladies to act as their protectors, with their honor on the line for both how well they protected their lady and how well they honored her.

Much of chivalry wasn't real, it was a meta-narrative that informed stories, every bit as artificial as the sexism meta-narrative. However, as a practical reality, wealthy women did, in fact, need protection. That part isn't artificial. Because this need existed as an institution, because everyone relied upon this institution and that everyone needed to understand it, they told stories about those who uphold the institution well and those who didn't. In addition, women in castles worked among mercenaries, men hired for combat. These were all strangers and very unreliable. It's easy to understand how women would get nervous with these strangers, often foreigners, hanging about the castle.

We think of chivalry as sexist because so many medieval movies were made where the sexist meta-narrative overlaid the chivalric meta-narrative. Naturally, chivalry looks like sexism because the two meta-narratives copulated copiously. That, and the middle ages weren't known for their socially progressive social structure, so while the chivalric narrative doesn't focus on sexism, the sexism of the era did inform the meta-narrative. Interestingly, the sexism of the era differed from today as that era had different notions about a woman's place and duties. Women were freer in some ways while more restricted in others. For example, women nursed injured knights back to health. They literally saved their lives, so a woman with great medical skill was incredibly valued by men.

I suggest not judging medieval life by the lives of noblewomen. Due to their station, they had obligations, duties, and privileges not shared by most women, who lived on farms and worked hard. Rich women might be delicate flowers, but poor women got to shovel the manure.

Chivalry concerns itself with the following:
  • A knight owes obligation to his lord.
  • A lord provides for his knight.
  • A knight may be given an obligation to protect a lady.
  • A knight's reputation depends on his ability to protect a lady (a relative of his lord).
  • (Losing a lady is a career limiting move.)
  • A knight's life is subservient to his lady's life.
  • Knights don't boss the ladies around. They serve ladies, not the other way around.
  • Knights gives affection to his lady.
  • A lady gives affection to her knight.
  • A knight's actions are at the behest of his lady. (The Lady gets all the credit.)
  • A badly behaved knight, who violates chivalry, kidnaps women, making the world go wrong.
  • The world is set right when the knight defeats the bad knight, and thus fulfills his obligations.
The chivalric meta-narrative centers around obligations and the fulfillment of obligations. The primary conflict is between knights, between obligations and duties violated and obligations and duties fulfilled. That's why both the king and the lady are barely in the story. In a chivalric tale, happy endings are signaled when the badly behaving knight is defeated and the woman happily restored to her family with her virtue intact.

Fortunately for women, even in sexist stories, ladies found way to get information to their knights so that their knight could win. The villains usually used dirty tricks, and the ladies exposed those tricks so that her virtuous knight would win fairly on the battlefield. (Those kidnapped women weren't totally useless.) This aiding showed the audience that the lady had kept her virtue and wanted to go home with her knight. This was understandable. Who really wants to stay with the villain?

Contrast that narrative with sexism, which is concerned about where each gender is happiest and where each has a natural place. This doesn't mean that the medieval system itself wasn't sexist, it merely means that the focus of the chivalric narrative was chivalry, not sexism.

If we inject a modern sensibility into chivalry, where the woman frees herself, that would indicate a failure on the knight's part. If the lady were to say, "I rescued myself," that would be the same as kicking the knight to the curb, who had just literally risked literal life and limb while accomplishing nothing. His reputation would have been shattered. In the context of chivalry, such a modern twist would break the social contract, rendering the narrative unsatisfying.

So, am I saying that the lady has to sit back so that the man can rescue her? If you want a story to satisfy a medieval audience, then yes. These stories weren't written for me and you, but for people living in a different age who had different ideas on what made a complete story. They were written for people who had different fears and concerns than you or I do today.

I think that the medieval writers got the balance right on this one: with the knight as the brawn and the lady as the brain, the combination of which gets evil defeated.

In summary, although the civalric meta-narrative occurs in a sexist context, the central themes of the narrative are more concerned with relationships and obligations than they are with enforcing gender roles.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Sexism as Meta-Narrative

We could define sexism as a meta-narrative. If it's there, it's sexism, but if it's not, it's not.

We could use an exclusive definition. A work isn't sexist if it include the following. If any of the items below aren't met, the work is sexist.

  • Women have their own agency.
  • Women have their own agendas.
  • Women are not dependent on men.

At first, that sounds good, but it turns sexism into a binary, which isn't useful. This definition binds more than it grants, especially as many stories have legitimate artistic reasons for choosing to curtail one or all of those criteria. In addition, this definition only identifies sexism against women, not against men or any other gender. The limited definition is applied regardless of the story's structure or applicablity to the criteria. Finally, the definition is so over-broad that it winds up encompassing everything regardless of any other merits, providing too many false positives, which makes tackling sexism an impossible task.

For example, it's WWI and a group of English soldiers meet a French woman on the road with her children. They don't speak French and the woman is in shock, so they divert to escort the woman to a safer place, amusing the children along the way. By the definition above, this is a sexist narrative, yet objectively, the soldiers act with basic decency and humanity.

I prefer a more limited definition of sexism, one that identifies sexism without pre-defining the narrative.

  • Men and women have natural spheres.
  • Men and women are happiest in their appropriate natural spheres.
  • The world is restored to rights when each gender is in its natural sphere.
  • Each gender respects the sphere of the other.
  • Women and their interests are subservient to men.
  • Men and women don't have ambitions outside their gender perspective.
  • Acting outside your sphere causes conflict and social breakdown.
  • Men are humiliated when acting in a woman's role. (He moves down in respect.)
  • A woman is presumptuous when acting in a man's role. (She attempts to move up in respect beyond her gender.)

To me, this is a much more useful narrative to identify sexism. It works for any gender. I can open up a story and see that it's sexist for both men and women. Most importantly, it exists independent of structure and metrics. Simply because a story contains elements commonly associated with sexism doesn't make it sexist.

Sexism affects men because it reduces the stories that we get to hear. A princess is kidnapped and ... 1) Only the strong hero gets to save her. That's restrictive. In a non-sexist world, 1) her brother gets to rescue her, 2) her father gets to rescue her, 3) her mother gets to rescue her, 4) her sister gets to rescue her, 5) her daughter gets to rescue her, 6) her grandparent gets to rescue her, 7) her neighbors get to rescue her, 8) and so on, 9) and the rescued somebody doesn't need to be a "her" at all.

Sexism means that only alpha-males get to have stories. Allowing other meta-narratives mean that other people get to act and have stories, people more like everyone else. We aren't restricted to just one kind of man, or woman, or anybody. Even simple variations put entirely new spins onto stories even though they have assumed sexist elements. This means that we can still have men saving women stories, which is important, as I believe that men genuinely want and need such stories where they express their emotions through their actions. (Men do that.) Men now get to save women, children, friends, parents, and colleagues. Men get more range of relationships out of rejecting sexism. We are no longer stuffed into a box where we only have worth if we have a woman.

When we return to the example of the soldiers, the story utterly fails to match any of my revised criteria. It's not a sexist story because the meta-narrative has nothing to do with enforcing gender roles. If anything, the soldiers act outside of gender roles by assuming the roles of caretakers and nurturers when the woman is no longer able to undertake her responsibilities. Nobody gets the woman in the end. In fact, the entire story feels a bit like a respite from war because the men get to leave the soldier narrative for a while, get to walk away from being alpha-males and killers, and act as nurturers. This is the kind of story that we really want.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The Structure of the Misogynist Novel

The Misogynist style novel has some very clear elements necessary to make it misogynist.
  • Alpha-male. It's great to be an alpha-male.
  • Non-alpha males are there to be defeated/die. They don't rate.
  • Using your stereotypical male traits is the only successful strategy to progress the story.
  • It sucks to be a woman.
  • Women need to be put in their place.
  • Every woman secretly feel the need to be put in  her place.
  • The villain is an alpha male (because nobody else can stand up to an alpha)
  • [sometimes] Alpha-wanna-be who clearly isn't. He dies.
  • [sometimes] Non-alpha sidekick, who's effective only when the alpha's around.

Note that while there is some violence against some women, it's not wanton violence. The sole purpose of violence against women is to make them passive, to recognize their position in the power dynamic. Once they've accepted their inferior status, a man loses his license for violence, especially as the woman has passed into a state of happiness now that she's found her proper position. Villains, however, don't recognize that distinction, always beating their women.

I can't state this strongly enough, the goal of a man is to dominate women, not murder them.

Women are wrong when they assert any male traits, such as dominance, power, ambition, cleverness, and the like. These are wild women, and they exist for the hero to tame. Often, they've usurped the order by making men work for them, often using magic or their sexual wiles. Once tamed, they assume docile status.

Is there non-consensual sex? There may be by the villain, because that's what villains do, but as the hero is manly and utterly desirable, a woman is incapable of controlling herself, so she must naturally throw herself willingly onto the hero and fuck for dear life. The hero never needs fear non-consensual sex because, by definition, his mere presence puts women into a consenting status. (Yes, the logic really is that stupid.)

Is this ridiculous? Of course it is. It's alpha-male pornography, where the alpha-male character butchers his enemies, accumulates women, and reaps all the rewards of being the alpha.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

The Tower and The Hive (1999)

The Tower and The Hive (1999) by Anne McCaffrey wraps up her tower series with the same overly fluffed prose as her other four novels. The space fleets investigate Hive worlds, come to conclusions, and work out a solution to their problems so that they can live happily ever after. That's pretty much what you'd expect out of a final book.

Sharing all the flaws of the previous tower books, this book holds no surprises or revelations, softballing the pertinent moral and ethical questions, while jumping to the socially acceptable answer. As always, any antagonist or opposer is demonstrated as having bad behavior problems and issues, rather than actually issuing opinions of merit.

For example, The Rowan's family dominates the Towers. While it's true that there's more supply than demand, this doesn't dismiss the underlying concern that there's too much power in one family's hands. Even if the accuser is jealous and xenophobic, and pouty to book, to dismiss the concern so quickly is patronizing. I don't expect the finest intellectual rigor on my McCaffrey SF, but I do demand some rigor. Answer the hard questions, or at least wrestle with them in a meaningful fashion that respects the reader.

While at one time I enjoyed books where the good guys agreed with each other, and they overcame the bad guys, now I find such writing as too pat. Conflicts are not binaries. While McCaffrey sort of gets that dynamic with the hive, as she comes to understand that genocide is genocide, she fails to apply the same consideration to human beings. The good guys need to actually work through their ethics instead of yakking away with character building scenes, and the bad guys need to present their case in a compelling manner so that they know that they've been thinking and that they're willing to ask the hard questions.

I think that this series ultimately misses for me because McCaffrey fails to build the characters, the world, and the issues, which is a stunningly failure considering that this is an SF series.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Lyon's Pride (1994)

Lyon's Pride (1994) by Anne McCaffrey, disappointed me on every level.  It's like a pretty new car that's a lemon under the hood. It's like one of those post-war British films with slow pacing and no soundtrack. You see everything getting discussed and decided, whether it helps the story or not. There was literally nothing happening across most of the chapters, no real feeling of beginning, no real feeling of uncertainty, and an even vaguer feeling of the end.

I skimmed for chapters at a time, spending seconds per page, without missing any single plot point. 90% of this book was padding. This book wasted my time. The only reason that I kept reading it is because I'm conducting a project of reading McCaffrey's non-Pern material.

This book has characters. I don't really care who they are. Their personalities really don't matter, which is good because they don't seem to have any. I frequently mix them up at this point and it doesn't matter.

There's some interesting bits when the Lyons are actually learning about the Hive. Unfortunately, not only do those bits not last very long, they seemed like asides.

What I can't figure is whether this book is supposed to be a YA book or a SF-romance. McCaffrey just can't decide.

If you liked the previous books in this series, you'll get more of what you expect, so read on. If you don't like the series, then you won't like this.


Friday, May 19, 2017

The Structure of the Girlfriend in a Refrigerator Trope

The Girlfriend in a Refrigerator is a trope used in the comic industry. It's a relatively rare trope because it's hard for any title to use the trope more than once. In this trope, the hero's girlfriend/wife/etc is killed while he's away in order to make the hero feel helpless, to essentially immaculate him. Without a symbolic woman, he ceases to be a symbolic man. He must then learn to be a man on his own again while travelling a darker road than he normally would, one gritter with revenge and brutality, for he's had his feminine aspect destroyed.

You can see how using this trope too often doesn't work. It must be rare. By my understanding (which may be wrong), we see about one of these stories per year come out of the industry, or about 1% of the output, if that much.

Male heroes go through this trope for many reasons, simply because most heroes are male. As you can't usually kill the hero off, because that only works in very limited circumstances, if you want edgy death to intrude onto your comic, then it must happen to a secondary character. As a hero usually doesn't have any parents, often because they're already dead, it has to be another loved one who dies. It could be a male character, but considering that comics is an industry primarily aimed at heteronormative males, that would look gay. The only real option is to pick the hero's love interest, who is usually the primary, if not only, female character in the title.

To aid in the hero's feeling of helplessness, the female character is killed while he's elsewhere. Despite all his power, he utterly failed in his ability to protect his loved one, adding a layer of angst on top of helplessness.

In theory, the female character could fight back, but the harder that she fights back, the less sorry that the hero will feel at his failure. And if she fights back and wins, then you don't have this trope, so you can't go in that direction. So if you really want the emotions to land true, especially in the melodrama that is comics, you need the girlfriend to go out like a chump.

Female characters usually don't come back from this for very good reason. First and most important, if she were to come back, that would undermine the emotional and ethical journey of the title character, the very person that the comic is about. Second, she's usually a secondary character in that title, so having a permanence to the death gives a moral imperative to the hero. The imperative of permanence means that the hero's choice will be permanent, and so they will now weigh upon him more. The hero's perceived perception of the stakes becomes heightened. More is on the line. The girlfriend's death makes the hero's choices matter more than they ever had before.

If overused, this strategy quickly loses all moral and emotional imperative. By design, it must remain rare inside any single title. Even across titles, it must remain relatively rare. If used too often, this trope quickly descends into cliche.

Outside of melodrama, the device really has limited use, which is why you generally don't see it.

Damia's Children (1993)

Damia's Children (1993) by Anne McCaffrey continues her Tower and Hive series. Rather than pseodo-biographies of the title characters, this book is a series of novellas focusing of four of Damia's children. Rather than giving us a long, dull slog, this book gives us four snappy, shorter stories, forming an actual narrative arc. While still a little simplistic, as the general text and texture of the whole series is rather a throwback to 50's SF, the simpleness generally works better in the context of a YA story. Because the galaxy doesn't depend on the actions of any one character, the story can follow more personal arcs, with each character finding a place by the end.

Because the subject matter is generally lighter and fast, the book projects a far lighter and sprightly feel than the earlier volumes. Very little feels unnecessarily padded, events all seem reasonable, and everyone gets some chance to show off their cleverness.

If you've gotten this far in the series, you'll find this title easy going.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Portal 2

Portal 2 (2011) is a first person, puzzle solving video game that attempts to catch lightning in the bottle twice. Like Portal, it features Chell (our silent protagonist), a portal gun that create teleportation portals from point A to Point B, malevolent testing computers, deathly hazards, and a story. Unlike the original, it doesn't catch lightning in a bottle, but don't take that as a criticism. Valve took what worked in the first game, added more puzzles and narrative, kept the wickedly evil sense of humor, and generally gave you more game for your buck. For me, this took the game past that sweet spot of the first game, creating an experience which pulled me to the end rather than slamming me into the end with so much energy that I wanted more.

With more game play, Valve gave us more acts and more mechanics. The first act of the game lasted about as long as the original, with enough puzzles and plot after that to total 2 to 2.5 more game than the original. If you like puzzling, getting this game for cheap is worth your money. New mechanics include flingers, light bridges, light tubes, and various goos.

Towards the end, the puzzles trended harder than anything in the original, with solutions that approached so crazy that they just might work. Rarely did I run into puzzles that made me scream, even if I did die a lot.

I must admit that the ending was madness. It didn't give me the utter satisfaction that the original ending gave me, but I found it frightfully clever and satisfying.

I had no crashes during any play session.

At no point was the world at risk in this game.

I got both game bundled, on sale, which proved an amazing value.

The Structure of the Hero and the Princess

I've been trying to make sense of the Hero and Princess style of story, and boy-oh-boy, is it a hot mess of messiness.

The basic structure goes like this:

- Villain/Monster kidnaps person. Totally socially inappropriate.
- Hero goes through socially approved conventions to get girl.
- Hero overcomes villain.
- Happily ever after (HEA)

This seems simple, but there's a few caveats.

"Socially approved" matches to HEA. "Socially approved" is a prerequisite to HEA. They're linked. "Socially approved" is, by definition, the right and proper way to do things. "Socially disapproved" is associated with monsters and villains. People who kidnap and force women are villains and monsters, and proper society will deal with them as such. The lesson is is: if you do such things, you'll be labeled as a villain and a monster. If you do things right, you'll be lauded a hero and welcomed into the family.

Note that "socially approved" is dependent on its time and place. So, if a time and place of the "socially approved" is sexist, then the story's going to be sexist. You can't avoid that. This is the true genesis of sexism in these stories. This is also the core of the story's flexibility. If you make sure that the hero does all the socially appropriate non-sexist things, then the HEA won't be sexist. In this case, if the hero has a prior relationship with the princess where they have a love, a promise, then when the hero rides off to save the heroine, he's finalizing their mutual relationship. You'll recognize this story because it's used all over the place, such as in "The Princess Bride."

So as you can see from the structure, this story is intended to teach that, 1) if you kidnap women, you will be branded a villain, and 2) if you follow proper social conventions, you'll be lauded as a hero and have an HEA.

One of the reasons that I used Hero and Villain is so that I can change genders.

- The Villain does what's socially wrong.
- The Heroine does what's socially right.
- The Heroine overcomes villain
- HEA

The female version of this tale comes with the usual caveat that what's socially right is likely sexist. However, you should be able to recognize elements of Snow White, Cinderella, and Rapunzel. There's differences between the male and female versions because what's socially acceptable for each gender is different, but the structure is remarkably similar.

What of trophy women? Or men? The romantic certainty of this structure isn't a bug, it's a feature. If we remove the romantic certainty, we change the underlying message of the structure.

Revision: Villain seizes princess, hero gets social approval, then overcomes villain, but there's no HEA.

This scenario would teach any young man that if you do all the right things, then you'll come out with negative results. That is not a good lesson to teach.

Revision: Villain seizes princess, hero gets social approval, then overcomes villain, then maybe he gets the HEA if the girl wants it after courting.

This scenario teach any young man that if you do all the right things, then you'll be no better off than you were before. That is not a good lesson to teach. Risking your life for a woman counts as nothing. Once you come to a proper arrangement, it will be changed as one side can't honor it's contracts.

This revision also makes clear the hero hasn't done all the socially appropriate things to get the girl, undermining the exact premise of the structure. Adding requirements later on moves the goalpost. (People who do that in such stories are also shown as villains, or at least horrible.) Changing requirements at the last minute is not a satisfying end to a story.

So, if you change the structure to end with a less certain outcome, you make the outcome worse according to feminist standards because the listener goes on to learn the wrong lessons. The certainty of the outcome is a necessary feature of this story.

What of this structure's sexist payload? I know of no literary criticism that has successfully staked itself as the one and true form of literary criticism that bars all others from existing. They've each tried and failed. While I accept that feminist criticism has things to say about this structure, this criticism is in no more definitive than any other style of criticism. I am still free to interpret this as best as I can according to my literary skills. As a result, I disagree with feminist interpretation. This is how literary arguments are born, and God bless 'em all. Where would we be without literary arguments? We are richer for multiple, well-demonstrated points of view because our literature is not one-dimensional.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

The Structure of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl

Let's pee on the electric fence! It's time to talk Manic Pixie Dream Girls (MPDG). Rather than define this myself, check out Wikipedia's article.

The structure behind this phenomena is just fascinating.

The MPDG comes about in relatively few cases. You need a story about a main character in a rut, with another character who comes along with the energy to get him out of a rut (the manic pixie dream girl). Usually, this is a romantic comedy, but sometimes it's a life exploration film.

In order for this plot to work, you first meet and experience the doldrums of the protagonist. Since the protagonist is the point of view character, arguably the only character that is real, the plot revolves around him (or her). This means what whoever walks into the protagonist's life walks into his plot, into his gravitational well, so to speak. He's also sort of an everyman, so even though he's shallow, everyone who identified with him project their own character complexities onto him, so he seems more real to us because we sympathize. Finally, as we get to know the protagonist's trouble, we think that we get to know him, but we really don't.

Eventually a second character comes along to shake up his life. At first, this is unwelcome, because the character in a rut really is more secure in his safe run than in anything unsafe. This second character tends to be less real than the main character, so what's there to the character has to really be very there. Because this character gets less screen time, the audience must meet and like this character immediately, identify this new this character as worthwhile, and root for a hookup to happen, all with inadequate information. If the intruding character doesn't meet that criteria, the audience wont' be happy. Because this all must happen so quickly, so much on the sly, the intruder's superficial qualities are more important than getting to know her character deeply.

If you were to give the second character as much screen time, you could lengthen the film (not always an option), take time away from the primary character (not always an option), and possibly risk the audience not liking the intruding character because they get to know her too well. There's nothing wrong with that idea for a more balanced structure, but the result is a different film, one that doesn't carry the same tempo as the structure above. In truth, the secondary character only really exists as a plot device for the primary character's growth and development.

Seen in this light, a manic pixie dream girl has nothing to do with sexism and everything to do with practical plot mechanics. Any sexism is merely an illusion, or an artifact of creating too many male led films.

By this definition, the earliest manic pixie dream girl that I know of is Prince Charming from Snow White. We see the story through Snow White's eyes, her troubles, and her friends. When she's in trouble, Prince Charming shows up. He is instantly likable, gets almost no screen time, we root for him, and waltzes away with the girl, taking her out of her rut. By any objective analysis, Prince Charming has been reduced to a sexist stereotype, but really, he's just a plot device for Snow White's growth. He says, "You've gotten there!" The audience always needs something to say, "You've gotten there."

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Damia (1992)

Damia (1992) by Anne McCaffey is the sequel that nobody asked for starring characters that nobody found interesting. Then, McCaffrey expanded the story, providing us with a novel full of filler.

Inside those bound, Damia continues the family story begun in The Rowan. We meet several characters, follow the development of both their personal and professional lives, culminating in a rehashing of the original short story, "Damia." The novel is almost entirely devoid of tension, anxiety, excitement, or charm. It just is. This is sorta the SF equivalent of an Epic Fantasy where you read about what every character does on making camp, day after day. What's there is all well written, but not engaging, possessing no momentum of its own. Damia doesn't even show until past page 100, over 1/3 of the way through the book. The characters themselves feel rather dull to the touch, like dough where the yeast has died off.

I'd love to say that expanding the story added something, deepened the setting, or increased our attachment to the characters, but it didn't. The whole thing takes place in the well run future, and the problem with the well run future is that there's really very little to sort out. The problems with this setting just overwhelm McCaffey's good intentions. I found little in the world that charmed me. Combine this with no knack for writing a family drama, and you get a novel that's pretty much dead in the water. Even so, the book is a marked improvement over The Rowan.

If you liked The Rowan, this book will continue to satisfy, possibly even more so. Otherwise, you're likely to get bored before the story gets anywhere, because the story really doesn't get anywhere.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Publishing Update

I'm behind on publishing this year. I had hoped to have the first Pabi novel out in July, but that's not going to happen. The good news is that I have two drafts in editing and one that needs more extensive work. The bad news is that the first novel is the one that needs work. I hope to have it cleaned up and edited by mid June with final editing coming sometime in mid-July. I have yet to settle on a series name.

The titles will be:

Maid of Memory
Maid of Shadows
Maid of Hope

Monday, May 1, 2017

The Silver Metal Lover (1981)

This book has no reason being this good. Tanith Lee's The Silver Metal Lover (1981) should have been a train wreck of a book, a totally misconceived notion with no possibility as working. As a teenager, I passed up this book many times, the subject matter looking uninteresting to me. In a way, I was right, because at that age, this book would have been beyond me. Now, however, she riveted me from beginning to end.

The story is almost entirely interpersonal, a romance, not of the modern romance arc, where the happily part is mandatory, but more like the romance of previous decades, where an entire arc of a tragic relationship would be followed. That doesn't mean that the ending isn't satisfying, it just means that the ending gives us closure in a different way than the happily ever after.

I felt particularly riveted by the first person prose style, which drops us solidly into the character's idiosyncratic point of view and kept us there, through all her changes, both internal and external. Jane is a spoiled rich brat, but not really, still capable of growth beyond herself. Her friends are varied and almost mythic in their portrayal, some more obviously than others.

The world most resembles that of Blade Runner, which hearkens back to Metropolis, with the absurdly rich living high up, and everyone else living low down, where the rich simply can't comprehend the everyone else part. In particular, the rich's fear of violence is out of proportion to the actual dangers of the world. This resemblance is reinforced with Silver, the robot that Jane loves, and the story's examination of what a robot lover means. How human are they? Is a human's love for a robot real? Given the imminent production of real sex-bots, the question is of even more importance today.

You won't find any shooting or starships in this SF novel. The fate of the world isn't at stake. In fact, the fate of nothing is at stake, except for that of Jane and her lover.

McCaffrey and Romance

I've heard and seen this said. "I just don't see McCaffrey and Romance." Well, it's there if you look for it. The early Pern novels had it more than the later Pern, while her non-Pern series often had elements. I haven't reread everything yet, so I can only mark what I've read or remember.

In general, the romance arc looks like this: people find each other, eventually they get it on, then get pulled apart, then get back together better than before, this time for real and without caveats. If the romance isn't the A plot, it's the B plot, or maybe the C plot.

Dragonflight - Lessa is carried away by a handsome dragon rider at the end of the first section. Section two, are they together or not. By the end of section three, they're together.

Dragonquest - Much of the story concerns the romance of F'nor and Brekke. F'nor and Brekke get together, Brekke loses her dragon, F'nor stands by her and eventually wins her back from sorrow.

The White Dragon - Halfway through, Jaxom gets sick, falls in love with his nurse, their isolation gets interrupted, she gets kidapped by her brother, he rescues her, and they declare their love. The setup is just about as stock romance as you can get.

The Ship Who Sang - Liberated female ship and many live-in boyfriends. (Really, it's just that blatant.)

The Rowan - Based on her romance SF short story.
Damia - Based on her romance SF short story.

Powers That Be - Woman + seal guy romance. Love making in a natural hot tub behind a waterfall with a were-seal is a sure indicator of a romance.

Acorna - Based on her romance SF short story.

Restoree - Flat out romance.
The Coelura - Flat out romance.
No One Noticed the Cat - A kid-friendly romance.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

No One Noticed the Cat (2007)

No One Noticed the Cat (2007) is a fluffy romance/adventure, well aimed at the middle school market. Boy and girl meet. They get married. There's an evil queen. Good triumphs in the end. It's all what you would expect, with a cat providing a bit of a twist. The highs of this book aren't very high, and the lows aren't very low, giving this book a very even keel. While this book shouldn't make anyone's must read list, but if you find it available and have a few minutes, you'll have a nice time.

Like all McCaffrey books, the villain is both smart and dumb at the same time.

You may feel temped to hold realism up to the adventure, but don't. This book has all the realism of a cartoon. If you think about it too hard, you'll ruin the charm.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Deerskin (1993)

I honestly don't know what Robin McKinley was thinking when the wrote Deerskin (1993). While technically readable, if not wonderfully so, I found this particular book so full of fluff, so pulled one way then another, that I lost all connection to the lead character. Meanwhile, I found the overarching story so thin that skimming at excess speed did nothing to undermine it.

This book was not for me, and that's okay.

While Robin usually includes interesting fantasy elements in the story, the fantasy elements in this story felt tacked on using nine inch nails. The romance felt tacked on as well. We hardly get to spend any time with the hero, barely getting to know him. So with both the fantasy elements and the romance elements feeling superfluous, the results simply didn't satisfy any of my interests.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Seven Sacred Beasts (2013)

Seven Sacred Beasts (2013) is a JRPG released by Kemco on the Kindle Fire. It's a basic monster evolution and fighting RPG, containing all the mechanics that you've come to expect from the genre. You capture monsters, evolve monsters, and fight monsters. To add some spice, there's a competition. All of that sounds like a nice relaxing grindfest of monster-fighting-fun. But wait, there's more, because between the various fights are interminable cut scenes where the characters yak and yak and yak. Oh My GOD, will they ever shut up? This game would have worked well enough as a monster-fighter with a light plot.

If that's not enough, you'd think that a game featuring a tournament would feature the tournament as the end fight. You'd be wrong. The whole thing is really about a final boss battle. I understand following convention, but isn't that taking convention a little too far and a little too literally?

As a monster fighter, the game is a lighthearted grindfest appropriate for anyone. Go team! As an RPG, it feel like somebody dropped a piano from the third story. Don't play this game for the story.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Alphadia

Alphadia is such the epitome of a JRPG that even with all the words removed, you could still figure out what's happening with little to no trouble. An ordinary young man gets into an adventure, finds out he's special, quests to save the world through numerous dungeons with random monsters, and then saves the world by fighting a boss at the end three times.

Most games implement formula with some freshness, but this hits the formula like three day old donuts. The story will mildly entertain you at best, but has no heart as the story implements the JRPG formula in the most straightforward and dull way possible, by using the formula as a story. Flat soda has more perk.

I felt that the game was aimed at the younger JRPG player. If you have a kid that likes this sort of game, the mechanics are mostly straight forward and simple, so even by going wrong, they can't go too wrong.

The game itself is easy to play. Set to auto, almost every combat is winnable simply by picking the hardest hitting characters. A few combats did need actual player participation, like the final fight of the final boss's three fight death match.

I don't give the game many stars, but it did amuse me for a while. If you need a game where you wander about and bash monsters, this will scratch your itch.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Portal (2007)

Portal (2007) catches lightning in a bottle. It's is a humorous first person puzzle video game developed and published by Valve. In this game, which is essentially a 3-D puzzle platformer, you use a portal gun to create teleportation points to solve physical puzzles. The gameplay develops wells, moves snappily along, and then throws you into the deep for an outrageous final level.

The humor and the storytelling in this game is top notch. There's just enough of this game to really make it work, giving you a good game play experience, while not so much of it that you're tired of the game by the end. Just like a good story, the game play adds hints of what's coming up, so when game play changes, you've been forewarned.

The game itself walks a nice line between challenging and frustrating, so even though you sometimes fail, you don't walk away in disgust or shout in anger.

What makes the game really work is the computer. Apparently, you are in an abandoned complex and the computer running you through scenarios isn't quite right, producing a very twisted comedy. They didn't need to make the computer that upbeat and that passive aggressive and that intolerably evil, but they made it all work out wonderfully.

Then there's the end song which is just the icing on the cake. My wife and daughter have been singing it for a week because it's so catchy and twisted.

The software itself was stable the whole time. I experienced no crashes.

I bought my copy for $5. If you can get this on sale, do so.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

The Swordbearer (1982)

The Swordbearer (1982) by Glen Cook is the dark fantasy version of a YA novel. If you know Glen's writing style, you'll recognize the disaster about to unfold. Unlike most YA novel, this one gets the inherent fantasy of boys and young men to murderously destroy all their opponents through powerful weapons and getting all the power.

The book itself progresses well enough until the middle, where the story bogs down and becomes just as series of events. Despite all the battles and all the addition of more powerful magic equipment, all momentum is lost. The powerful magic items becomes meaningless. The conflict becomes meaningless. Even our hero becomes meaningless. (In fact, the conflict is meaningless, which only adds to the meaninglessness that already exists.)

While this story is an interesting direction to take the unwilling hero story, it's a direction that shouldn't be repeated. It's a mediocre tale, one filled with themes that will to on to make his Dread Empire and Black Company stories ring like steel.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Superman 4: The Quest of Peace (1987)

I went into Superman 4 (1987) expecting to see a total train wreck of a film. Instead, what I found was a mostly pleasant Superman film with some issues, but far fewer issues than Superman 3.

Was the film really that bad? No, it wasn't.

Valiantly, the script reached for what worked in the first two Superman films. For the most part, it touched its mark.

In the cultural zeitgeist, it chose the themes: nuclear weapons, corporate takeovers, tabloid journalism, and greed. Recall that the 80's was the era of greed. "Greed is good." With a nuclear summit breaking down, a boy asks Superman to solve the nuclear problem. Meanwhile, the Daily Planet has been subject to a hostile takeover and turned into a sleezy tabloid.

Overall, I found the setup acceptable, the pacing good, the procession of events clear, the acting appropriately stylized, with enough twists and turns in the plot to keep keep our hero jumping.

That's not so say that the film entirely work. There was a better film here at one point but it suffered under two problems. By my best guess (and this is a guess): 1) the production didn't get enough money, and 2) the suits demanded that a 120 minute film be cut down to 90 minutes.

I'll be honest here. The early film works, but there are place where it gets choppy later on. I'm positive that too much of the film was removed to make the studio executives happy. This being the 80's, that's a good bet as film were being released to fit neatly into 2 TV hour slots (with commercials). Yeah, it was a thing. Look it up. (Don't take my word for it.)

The other area where the film suffered were the special effects. The miniature work remained excellent, but the bluescreen work looked uninspired.

Taken together, Superman 4 is a middle-weight 80's action flick. Nothing special, but nothing really terrible, either. Competent, if uninspired. So what changed? Why is this Superman film so reviled above all others?

I blame Frank Miller.

In 1986, Frank Miller rocked the comic world with The Dark Knight Returns. An increasingly specialized comic market fell in love with this grittier Batman and gritter Superman. The comics fans now wanted different fare. Now that they've read Frank Miller, how do you keep the kids in Metropolis?

The message that Superman 4 brought was the exact opposite of what the comic fan base desired. This is a film founded in idealism and hope. The fight scenes weren't realistic, they were based on those crazy things Superman did back in the 50's and 60's, where physics were optional. S4 is literally a world-wide fight to save the world from nuclear destruction. S4 is the exact opposite of what the cynical 80's comic market wanted. S4 represented the sort of comic that the comic market now considered cheezy and bad, a low point in DC comics. Thus, S4 was bad. And once fan boys start piling on, you either agree or get pummeled. Thus, S4 became a whipping boy for comics fandom.

Meanwhile, the culture that needed Superman in 1978 didn't need Superman now. When Superman: The Movie and Superman 2 were released, the whole summer blockbuster thing had just gotten started. Superman was the first successful franchise following Star Wars. It redefined the superhero film. It gave an entirely new direction to action and adventure. In 1981, the world met Indiana Jones in Raider of the Lost Ark. Other films showed up: ET, The Road Warrior, The Terminator, Ghostbusters, Alien, Aliens, Back to the Future, Conan the Barbarian. By the time that Superman 4 showed up, trying recapture the magic of Superman: The Movie, a decade of innovation and excitement had changed audience's expectations. The SF that once awed us were now expected.

Two years later, 1989, Batman premiered on the big screen. Warner Brothers had learned its lesson and gave the audience what it wanted.

Superman 4's main problem was it was the wrong film at the wrong time. The studio executives had failed to spot the changing public trends and gave the public a film that could not resonate with the culture.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

The Allies vs the Soviet Union Pt 3

The Allies didn't go on to fight the Soviet Union. They knew that they would need to solve some difficult problems in order to win. Given the difficulty of the problem, they knew that they would need new weapons systems and new approaches.

How difficult of a problem was this?

It's called the Cold War. Both sides tried out out-develop and out-manufacture each other, in an arms race, with neither gaining the superiority needed to ensure a victory until they mass-deployed nuclear missiles, which created MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction). The Cold War is proof that neither side had a military path to victory against the other.

So when someone says, "Side X could have defeated Side Y," take a look at the weapons systems developed for the Cold War with idea that these weapons were prerequisites to any successful traditional assault on the other side of the world. The catchword here is "intercontinental."

For example, the B-52, an intercontinental bomber, was bid in 1946 and began service in 1952. Criteria for its development must have begun soon after VE day, if not while the war raged. The military knew exactly what it needed to defeat the USSR, and it didn't have those tools. Importantly, it wanted an bomber with a 5,000 mile range, which is double the range of the B-29.

The Cold War wasn't just war by proxy, it was an era where each side fully expected to fight the other to the death, and each side was actively preparing to do so. Forty years later, at the fall of the Berlin wall, neither side had declared victory.

Who would win if the Allies and the Soviet Union fought? Nobody. Despite the greatest economy in the world, stalemate was the best that anybody could produce.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

The Allies vs The Soviet Union Pt 2

So, if the Allies had actually fought the Soviet Union after WW2, what would they have to do in order to win?

I see a multi-pronged approach: 1) Western Europe, 2) Baltic, 3) Crimea, 4) Eastern Russia, 5) Sea, 6) Air.

The basic idea is to attack where the Red Army isn't, to stress supply lines, to damage industrial infrastructure, and to create air bases to penetrate further into the Soviet Union.

The East is the easiest and hardest front. The Russian will ceded that territory, giving the invader the long supply lines and extended front in exchange for few lost people or resources. Quite simply, any Siberian campaign would be a significant resource sink for the Allies, requiring years of road building without the Soviet Union spending a single resource. Even a token resistance force inside the area would have a large impact on American operations.

Control of the seas is vital to the Allies, especially the Baltic and Black seas. The Allies would focus on constricting trade as their primary means of warfare. Their goal would be to strangles the USSR economy. While this can't deliver victory, this would be the most effective means of limiting their war machine.

No assault on the USSR could really succeed as long as its manufacturing base was safe, and that would mean a push by the Allies up the Crimea and into the Russian heartland. The Allies had the troop transport and logistical expertise necessary to begin and conduct such a naval operation, assuming that they had enough troops. (That's not necessarily a good assumption). Even so, it's a long way to the eastern Urals with a long, exposed flank. (Objectively, there is no good way to the eastern Urals.)

Meanwhile, the Red Army in German is a juggernaut and knows exactly how to push back a competent and vicious foe. The battle in the west will be brutal under even the most rosy scenario, sucking down troops and equipment.

The Russian challenge is how to knock out an enemy that's equally difficult to crack. They don't have extensive fleets, so how would they even build up a landing against England? Like Germany, they would face D-Day somewhere. Meanwhile, the Allies are all through the Mid-East, with multiple footholds on the continent. They control all the major seaways. Effectively, the Allies can wage war incessantly should they desire, trading with the entire world, out manufacturing Russia on every measure. Their food comes from two hemispheres. They can move goods and services wherever they want.

Once committed to defeating the Allies, the Soviet Union has to take everywhere, because every place that it doesn't take becomes a landing zone for the Allies. The entire coastline becomes vulnerable, and that's a whole lot of coastline. Defending it requires permanently encamped armies, each able to handle an Allied assault.

Most likely, the war would end with a negotiated truce. The Allies will have pushed back the USSR somewhat, and would trade territory in Europe for territory seized elsewhere. The overall borders would look very similar to the Cold War borders.

But what about tanks and planes? Yes, both sides would have them. They'd shoot at each other a lot, then factories would build more. Sometimes Americans would defeat Russians, and sometimes Russians would defeat Americans. There's far more to planes and tanks than rock/scissors/paper. No single set of numbers will tell you who would win because you need context, doctrine, and strategy of the combined military forces to even begin assessing the issue. The simple truth is that both sides had effective weapons and knew how to use them as part of their overall strategy and tactics. The best tank didn't automatically win and the worst tank didn't automatically lose. Tanks and planes may work that way in board games, but they don't work that way in real life.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

The Allies vs the Soviet Union after WW2

If the Allies had continued to fight to Soviet Union after the defeat of Germany, who would have won?

This is one of those perennially never-completed arguments, so I though that I'd have a little fun and give my answer to this impossible question.

First, we have to examine the idea of winning. Winning is where one nation achieves its military/political goal, thus you must rate success by each country in accordance to its own goals rather than victory through an arbitrary measure, such as crossing the finish line.

We know what happened in real life. The Allied powers thought about continuing the war into Russia, but on consideration, decided that pursuing that option was not desirable. Likewise, Russia made the same calculation and decided similarly. Both sides would have preferred to see a more total victory, but even Russia saw its goal as unattainable.

I believe that the political powers of WW2 were correct in their assessment. If the war had continued in Europe, nobody would have won. Both sides would have failed to achieve their military and political goals. Given this conclusion, to continue the war would have been an unnecessary human slaughter. This didn't make the end of WW2 any less a mess, but it does inform us that the mess was preferable to a military solution.

But, what if the Red Army and the US Army had fought? In the short term, my money would be on the Red Army due to sheer numbers, and in the medium term, on the allies due to Russia's over-extended logistics and economy. In the long term, both sides would have settled on a peace. Many dead, little gained.

Superman 3

I find myself charmed by Superman III despite the flimsy nature of the film. It seems to stand astride two basic foundations, one the foundation laid down by the original Superman films, and the other by the 80's and what the suits wanted. As you can guess, these didn't go together well at all.

I'll just rattle away a bit, so excuse any rambling.

I found myself most charmed by the computers. Despite the fact that they really didn't act like computers at all, because the writers were pretty ignorant of computers of the day, they only had period computers to work with, and all the misconceptions about computers were period misconceptions, only workable in that period. We saw green screens, amber screens, keyboards, tape reels, and all other sorts of stock computer tropes, all slightly updated for the 80's and the personal computer revolution.

Not surprisingly, the big villain turned out to be a computer created by the supposed big villain (who was Not-Lex-Luthor and Not-Lex-Luthor's evil sister). This computer became self-aware, seized the evil sister, and turned her into a cyborg to fight Superman. I can't say that this is the first film that depicted the fear of computers taking over, but it certainly brought the subject out of the cult sphere and into mainstream conciseness. Computers strip away our humanity.

In that way, I suppose that S3 had the theme of humanity being stripped away, and without that, we become cruel. There's a place where Superman is split in half to fight his evil self. His human self is the part that wins, not his super self. It is then this human-superman that defeats the evil computer by using his human smarts. Despite their seeming divinity, computers, not matter how well programmed, are not our new gods, for even if they are all powerful, they cannot be all knowing.

This is re-emphasized with the updated Lana Lang, a "today's girl" who's a level-headed single mother struggling to raise her son well. She's got her act together, not like the flighty or defenseless women of previous decades, but also not aggressive, like Lois Lane. Her Superman is not a man who flies around with a cape, but a man who comes home and helps her to make a family, which makes Clark quite the Superman indeed.

What is humanity? Family. Middle-American values. Sober living. Sweaters draped across the shoulders and conservative dress. All the stuff that makes the Moral Majority happy. (There would be no more Superman bopping Lois Lane in the 80's).

The first two Supermans were products of the Carter era, or more importantly, the Post-Nixon era, where our icons have fallen and we really do need a new icon to stand up for America. In the 80's, we are now into the Reagan era, the Conservative have come into power, and the center of symbolism has changed.

The new villains are Corporations, not dictators, and their limitless ambition only worships at the altar of money. We saw this begin with Lex Luthor's in the first Superman, but then he was just this guy with an evil plan. This time, the villain leads and entire corporation. Out in the real world, this is an era when corporations are always changing their names (or so says Jefferson Starship), merging, and synergizing. Old corporate names are literally disappearing as new ones emerge, moving factories to other countries, and playing a new kind of economic politics to their own advantage.

The film makes strides against racism. I don't think that we saw a single black face with a speaking part in the last film, but in this one, the co-star is Richard Pryor, a black man. We also see a black fire chief amid a sea of white faces. Even so, the majority of all faces remain white and male.

The actual plot of the film is rather ridiculous, even by Superman standards, with an weak overall ending. The main villain creates fake kryptonite, which turns Superman evil, then splits him in two, but after he literally pulls himself together, flies off to defeat the evil computer which has run out of control. The story feels like a modern Hollywood film, where someone wrote a decent script, and then suits demanded changes until the whole film rattled along, good-enough, but not great. Honestly, I can't stay that it's any more incoherent or stupid than the latest X-Men film.

What missing from the film is everything 80's. If you will, this film depicts an idealized 80's, with no modern music, new wave fashion, punks, Japanese cars, smog, or anything else rejected by middle-America. In a way, the film de-urbanizes Superman, saving him from the East-Coast elites. It's only his return to middle-America that reconnects Superman with his White Christian American roots, that makes him a truly American again.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Putting Together a Justice League Film (a thought experiment)

As a little thought experiment, let's lay out a Justice League film based on where the DC universe is right now.

We have five primary characters. Of those five, three will be "new" to the audience.

Batman
Wonder Woman

And new:

The Flash
Cyborg
Aquaman

This means that the film will need to introduce us to three new heroes and the villain(s).

At the moment, the DC universe does not have many villains/villain groups capable of matching the Justice League. We could go the multi-villain route, but that would require setting up around 5 villains to take on the five heroes. That's eight major characters introduced in one film. Our other alternative would be to introduce a single villain capable of delivering enough firepower to require five heroes. There aren't many villain groups like that in the DC universe, with Darkseid being the best known.

So based on the practical requirements of the film, if you don't want an epic monstrosity, you'd need to go the Darkseid route. Darkseid has faceless minions strong enough to provide fight, and enough power to to require the assembly of a Justice League.

If I was going to write a comic book, I would choose the opposite. Since comic books love to run many books, getting more villains is a bonus. I would have a group of villains ally together, learning to work together, just as the Justice League must learn to work together. When the showdown comes, both teams should have their issues worked out, meaning that the fight should feel like anybody's guess (even if we do know that the villains will lose). The villains will lose not because they aren't capable of winning, but when the stresses build enough, their seemingly settled problems flare up, and their base distrust of each other proves their undoing.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Always Coming Home (1985)

Always Coming Home (1985) by Ursula LeGuin is a textbook on a culture that doesn't yet exist. If you like reading textbooks, you'll love reading this book. My personal experience included nodding off and vertigo. Too much textbook and not enough story. It's quality stuff, just not the sort of stuff that my brain wants.

I did not complete this book.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Chalice

Chalice (2008) by Robin McKinley is a sweet slice of romance paired with a large dollop of fantasy. Served warm, they go rather well together.

The sweet romance progresses much as you would expected, with Robin finding plenty of ways move it along without the romance feeling too forced.

Robin spend considerable amounts of time ensuring that her heroine is a complete and round person, not needing a hero at all, but certainly not at the point where she doesn't need anybody.

Normally, I don't find magic systems very interesting, but I enjoyed her neighborhood fantasy, where the workings of the magical neighborhood matter. I was fascinated with idea of a magical local government, and how its members would work and function. Indeed, I found her magical beekeeper far more interesting than I find most magical folks. (I could call her a hedge wizard, but that would be like calling rice a kind of wheat. It's tru that they are both grains and very related, but you can't really call them the same thing.)

In total, although not a page turner for me, I found this book a refreshing read and a nice break from doom and gloom fantasy.

Think Tank (A Free LARP)

Bring you laptops, paper, post-it notes (tm), and wonkiness. Congress wants a report and it wants the report in only 4 HOURS. Go.

What's the report on? That's up to the DM. I recommend requiring reports to implement the craziest, least workable political ideas of today.

For example:

  • Determine the costs and timetable to force-convert all Americans to Islam using Walmarts.
  • Invade Mordor.
  • Take away all the guns in the United States.
  • Fake an alien invasion in order to allow permanent martial law.

Your finished report should be as official and clean looking as possible.

Note to Game Masters: This works best if your researchers feel the full brunt of surprise. Perhaps mislead them with the wrong question? That's so much like real life.

As a bit of extra fun, you could even stage a Congressional hearing. Congressmen like PowerPoints, so include those, too. Congress ought to get a presentation (if time is available) or a video presentation (if it isn't).

If everything goes right, there's little that a Game Runner needs to do. It's up to your players to organize themselves and get the report out. Or throw curveballs because you're feeling evil. There's nothing like having your Congress characters issue a list of questions 2 hours into report preparation.

As a variation, you can play this as a dispersed game. There's no reason why this game can't run over a period of time, with your players sorting this all out virtually.

To add more complexity, you may want to put an ideological or political spin on the game. Anything that can put players at loggerheads should be considered (depending on the context). Opposing ideologies can make for fierce internal debate.

(You have my permission to print and reprint this scenario as required to run a game. If you remember to credit Douglas Milewski as Writer, that would be triple-awesome.)

Have you actually run this game? Leave a comment.