Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Russia Intent on Making Itself Leader of the "Anti-Western" World

Here's an article from the Washington Post I found online today that I wanted to share with you all. The gist of it is that although U.S. President Barack Obama states the U.S. is not in a new Cold War with semi-dictator Vladimir Putin's Russia because the latter lacks an ideology and a bloc of nations surrounding it, the reality is somewhat opposite. Putin instead seeks make Russia (and by extension himself) the leader of a bloc of nations opposed to "Western" values that include, among other things, tolerance of homosexuality, social liberalism in general, etc.

Below is cartoon showing Russia's supposed glories (including the Soviet victory in WWII and the space program as well as its medieval heritage) in contrast to the supposed decadent drug-addled homo-fascism of the European Union. Click on the image to see all of the gory details.

The first thing that came to mind was not some political stand or another (my opinion on that matter can be found here), but the world my Afrikaner stories "Coil Gun" and "Picking Up Plans in Palma" (both of which appear in my collection Flashing Steel, Flashing Fire) take place in. The world features a cold war between the League of Democracies, led by the United States, and a bloc led by the Afrikaner Confederation, a white supremacist empire spanning the Indian Ocean basin. Here's the timeline.

Members of the latter bloc refer to their alliance as "the Self-Determination Compact." It consists of various illiberal regimes like the Confederation, the Taiping regime in southern China, Tibet, the Persian Empire, Thailand, the Hejaz, the Rashids, Afghanistan, and the Sikh Empire. Ostensibly a defensive alliance against outside forces threatening their "traditional cultures," what they really are is an anti-Enlightenment pact consisting of a white-supremacist/Christian-supremacist empire, a weird semi-theocracy, a theocracy, several monarchies, and a semi-theocratic state with a weighted franchise much like old Prussia that gives the Sikh minority disproportionate power compared to the Hindu and Muslim majority.

The sort of Enlightenment liberalism represented by the United States and its allies is a threat to these more-or-less anti-democratic regimes. It's like the anti-revolutionary Holy Alliance was brought forward a century, its obscurantism toned down just enough to permit the kind of military advances science provides (to a point) and prevent a total explosion of the oppressed masses (the Confederation is a democracy for whites like apartheid South Africa, while most of its allies have at least some constitutionalism going), and allowed to claim the language of self-determination for foreign consumption.

Fortunately I'm thinking that if something like this is Putin's aspiration, it's likely that China is going to end up in charge, not Russia. Russia is a glorified petro-state, while China has a productive economy. By alienating Russia from Europe and the United States, Putin more likely has doomed it to a future of being dependent on China.

In Which I Appear in (FREE) British E-Magazine...

The British member of my alternate history Internet forum whose handle is Grey Wolf has an online magazine that features both original fiction and interviews with writers. A lengthy Q&A about my short-fiction collection Flashing Steel, Flashing Fire: Ten Tales of Valor and Imagination and my writing career generally is enclosed in the latest issue.

Among other interesting facts you can learn about me are:

*Just how I started writing and what my first projects were.

*How my first real short story came to be and what it's mutated into over the years. Think a cross between Death Wish and Species.The improved version exists as only an "idea file" on my computer and more interesting projects are closer to my heart, but who knows what the future holds.

*My experiences with writing groups.

*What my most recent short-fiction submissions to anthologies and collections have been sent.

And do you want to know something particularly awesome about this issue? It's free! No risk at all!

Where can you find it? You can download it in multiple formats (including standard PDF you can read on your browser) right here.


Sunday, September 14, 2014

ASOIAF AU Fan-Fic: So Soars The Young Falcon

On my alternate-history forum, a gentleman whose handle is CDA started writing an alternate timeline set in the world of George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire. It's entitled "So Soars the Young Falcon" and diverges from canon at the Battle of the Bells during Robert's Rebellion. Instead of dying at Jon Connington's hands, Denys Arryn (Jon Arryn's cousin and heir at the time) kills Connington and the royal army routs. This brings the rebellion to an accelerated conclusion, which is both good and bad. No details due to spoiler reasons...

CDA wanted to explore the world of Westeros through the lens of the early modern period. Although Westeros is generally referred to as a medieval world, one writer has made the claim it has more common with Europe's early modern period (the age of Renaissance and Reformation). See this article here.

So on the macro level, this timeline features, among other things:

*An incipient proto-Columbus, preparing to follow in the footsteps of Brandon the Shipwright. Let's just say that Brandon did not sail off to his death and there's something on the other side of the Sunset Sea...

*A septon present at the Battle of the Bells has his faith tested by the carnage and becomes a reformer of the Faith of the Seven who challenges the established religious hierarchy. He's an analogue to John Wycliffe. We've also met the analogues for Jan Hus and John Calvin as well. The way things are looking we're going to get all the disruption of our world's Reformation, and that's before the devotees of the Red God come west in significant numbers and the Others start stirring. Oh boy...

This in addition to some different adventures for the canon cast, including Ashara Dayne, Sandor Clegane, Jaime Lannister, Ned Stark (whose wolf-pack expands significantly), Lysa Arryn, and the mysterious "Young Griff." It's a lot of fun.

Blast from the Past Movie Review: "The Hobbit" (1977)

Last night I went over to my friend Nick's house to watch the The Hobbit (1977) for his podcast Myopia: Defend Your Childhood. I'll post the actual podcast here when it goes live. I hadn't seen this movie before so it's hard to call it a "blast from the past" film, but whatever.

The Plot

In the land of the Shire, homebody Bilbo Baggins is approached by the wizard Gandalf and a bunch of Dwarves to help the latter reclaim their kingdom from the dragon Smaug, who drove their people out and claimed their vast riches for himself. Despite himself, he ends up going off on an adventure that, unbeknownst to him, has some very far-ranging consequences.

The Good

*The story moves along at a pretty fast clip. What takes a substantial amount of time in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey-- the arrival of Gandalf to the capture of the Dwarfs by the trolls -- is accomplished in the low double digits of minutes. Peter Jackson is often criticized for his movies running too long and this one certainly doesn't have that problem. The movie is poorly done in many ways (see below), but it's never dull.

The Bad

*The animation quality is simply not very good. Given how the film was made in 1977 by Rankin and Bass rather than Disney it's hard to hold this against them given the limitations of budget if nothing else, but the character designs are just bad. The dwarfs look like elderly versions of the titular dwarfs from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the goblins are frog-like creatures with heads and mouths larger than their bodies, Gollum looks like a overweight version of Kermit the Frog (who for some reason is much, much larger than Bilbo), and Smaug has fur and a cat-like face for some reason. The Wood Elves look like pale-skinned troll dollson methamphetamine and Elrond looks like an elderly Doctor Strange with a permanent halo. The Wood Elves' bit is the most annoying lore-wise, as they seem to be an entirely different species from Elrond.

*Speaking of Gollum and Smaug, they are the most lethargic film villains I've seen in quite some time. Gollum comes off as very lazy and depressed, while Smaug is all like, "Whatever" when he thinks Bilbo is a thief come to steal from his hoard. The latter could be a trick to get Bilbo to reveal himself so he could kill him, but Peter Jackson's interpretation of Bilbo and Smaug in The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug is so much better. In that film, Bilbo flatters Smaug to keep Smaug from killing him in a much longer, more suspenseful scene.

*When Gandalf kills the king of the goblins and Bilbo kills some of the spiders in Mirkwood, it gets really psychedelic when the death-blow falls. The goblin king spins off into the sky like he's being flushed down a toilet, while the deaths of the spiders get really acid-trippy. Meanwhile, Bard's killing of Smaug is handled realistically. If the creators intended to downplay the heroes' killing, they seemed to have forgotten about Bard completely. Meanwhile, Smaug kills men and dwarfs alike with fire, onscreen.

*There is a lot of telling rather than showing. For example, Bard the Bowman tells Bilbo and the Dwarfs that for killing Smaug the men of Laketown have proclaimed him king. Given the elaboration on the character of the Master of Laketown and his antagonistic relationship with Bard in The Desolation of Smaug, I imagine Peter Jackson will show this in the upcoming final film and it's going to be a lot better. Even though this keeps the film from getting too long, its 77 minute run-time could be doubled without problems and we could have a much better story.

*The Dwarfs are a bunch of useless cowards for most of the film. Until the incident with the trolls it doesn't seem like they're even armed, they bail on Bilbo when he's captured by the trolls and calls for help (and get captured anyway, unlike in the first Peter Jackson film when they're willing to fight until the trolls threaten to kill Bilbo), and in the most aggravating scene, they come off as downright terrified of the goblins whom per the lore they've fought and defeated before. In the first Peter Jackson film they do resist capture at Goblin-Town, but they get mobbed and dragged before the king rather than cowering until they're chained by what seem to be a relatively small number of goblins.

*It's also hard to differentiate between the dwarfs other than Thorin and perhaps Bombur.

*At the end of the film, Gandalf makes some completely random reference to Bilbo's actions fulfilling prophecies. There is no reference to any kind of prophecy earlier in the film--even the poem about the king of the mountain returning to his own in Laketown (which Bard in Desolation interprets as a prophecy of the destruction of the town by Smaug and tries to stop) is a musical number rather than a plot point. Although it seems to be a Sequel Hook given just what the ring turns out to be, it's done very poorly.

*The second Peter Jackson film does a much better job foreshadowing that Gollum's "magic ring" is much more than some toy that can turn someone invisible. The Lord of the Rings has already been written by now, so the creators don't have the excuse Tolkien himself had that he hadn't created the mythology yet.

*Per the Wikipedia article, it was a television special on NBC. This would explain the obvious commercial breaks. Those could've been fixed with a better editing job.

The Verdict

Read the book or go see the Peter Jackson films, especially since the third one will be out in three months. Don't bother with this. Four out of 10.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Some Thoughts on "The Strain" Episode #9: "The Disappeared" (SPOILERS)

I just watched my recorded episode of the most recent episode of the first season of the television series The Strain. Here are some thoughts:

*Like I suspected, this episode ended the Holocaust arc. The young Sertrakian confronts the Master in a manner somewhat different from what I remember in the first book and escapes with crippled hands. In the book it was much clearer the Master spared him out of sadism--with his hands crippled, he wouldn't be of use to the Nazis anymore and they'd kill him. This lack of Evil Gloating has prompted at least one reviewer to accuse the Master of not being particularly Genre Savvy about sparing his enemies' lives. He's Genre Savvy enough to know that Sertrakian has been watching him though...

The next morning, the previously weirdly friendly Nazi Thomas Eichhorst discovers Sertrakian's crippled hands and sends him off to be killed. Fortunately an Allied air raid allows him and a bunch of other prisoners to escape. Eichhorst flees soon afterward, pursued by presumably Soviet troops or partisans with hunting dogs, and hides in a bunker in the woods where he's stashed the Master's coffin. He drinks and whines about how the Master has forsaken him when, well, the Master shows up. Here we see the Master with glowing eyes under his hood, which is cool, and then he pulls back his hood to reveal his horrible face.

Which isn't cool. He looks too much like Count Orlock from Nosferatu,complete with the pointed ears. And a double chin--apparently the vampire overlord needs some more cardio. Another reviewer compared him to some critter that failed an audition for a Lord of the Rings orc. Were I making this, I'd have left his face unrevealed for now, but still allowed the glimpse of the evil glowing eyes. And when the time for the reveal comes, here's a much better version of the Master. Oh well, too late now.

In any event, Eichhorst bows before the Master, who slits open the Nazi's arm with one of his talons. He then cuts open his own flesh to allow one of his parasitic worms to emerge. The Master allows the worm to slither into Eichhorst's open wound and now we know how one makes a sentient vampire with a personality as opposed to a zombie minion.

Am I the only one who got a distinctly blasphemous vibe off that? It came off to me like a parody of the sacrament of communion--this is my body and this is my blood, eat of my flesh and drink of my blood and have eternal life, etc. Between that and the whole "where is your God" exchange with Sertrakian, it seems the Master is kind of a jerk where religion is concerned.

On the other hand, there was that exchange in an earlier episode where Eichhorst claimed to have infected Sertrakian's wife and Sertrakian claimed to have killed a vampire buddy of his, so maybe we'll see more of the Tom and Abe show in the near future.

*We get a bit of back-story for Nora. She's apparently from Argentina and references the infamous disappearances when Ephraim's ex-wife Kelly's goes missing. I suspect that the vampirized Matt came after her first (the whole "dear ones" thing) and now she's on her way to becoming a monster. Next week's episode looks like it'll deal with that issue--there's a scene showing vampire-Matt attacking her, Eph tracking her cell phone, etc.

*I did like Eph's obliteration of vampire-Matt. Silver dagger and repeated blows with a shovel, followed by foot-aided decapitation. And I like how Zach (Kelly and Eph's son) was quick enough on his feet to fend off Matt with a shovel for a few minutes before Eph could come take care of business.

*And Eph and Nora go at it in Eph's house, avoiding sullying the marital bed by having sex on the floor. And then Kelly's friend, the one who referred to Nora as Eph's "spicy side dish" in a previous episode, just happens to come in. She'd dropped off Zach earlier and was apparently worried enough to come check on him. Awkward...

*I found Nora's Alzheimer's-afflicted mother's response to the vampire hunters returning to the pawn shop where they'd left her amusing.

Why You Might Need a Gun at Kroger (and Some Thoughts on Open-Carry In General)

Lately, the anti-gun advocacy group Moms Demand Action has been putting pressure on the Kroger supermarket chain to ban private citizens from carrying guns (or at least carrying them openly) in their stores. As a private business, Kroger has the right to determine what happens on its property and Moms Demand Action, however annoying they are, has the right to advocate for the policies they think best.

However, some recent news articles have come to my attention indicating that being armed at Kroger can be a very good idea...

Brutal Kroger parking lot attack caught on camera

And here's another one, involving a defensive shooting at an ATM outside a Kroger.

Man shoots, kills suspect after attempted robbery

Note that the police were nearby but failed to intervene until the private citizen shot and killed the perpetrator. I've seen gun-control advocates claim that people shouldn't carry guns and should instead rely on the police, but the police can't always respond in time, especially in more rural areas or areas where there are lots of demands on them. And under U.S. law, the police have no obligation to protect any individual citizen. This is not to cast aspersions on the police's good intentions, but on their capability.

Fortunately, Kroger has not yet bowed to the pressure from these people. Hopefully they won't, even if the individuals in the following link who are either brave enough or stupid enough to post under their own names start deliberately spoiling food or even making armed-robbery calls against open-carriers, both of which are crimes and the latter of which could lead to someone getting killed.

That said, the open-carry movement comes off as rather trollish. They may have the legal right in states to open carry, but are they openly carrying for any purpose other than to thumb their noses at people they don't agree with? The NRA itself said that this wasn't "neighborly" before the open-carry people pitched a fit and forced the organization to back down.

To paraphrase Scripture, everything may be permissible, but not everything may be beneficial. I'm a supporter of gun rights, I don't have a high opinion of the gun control movement, and I think the "don't sink to their level" argument often serves to put good people at a disadvantage compared to the wicked (think honorable Ned Stark getting screwed by the treacherous Cersei and Littlefinger), but I fail to see any advantage to be gained from this open-carry business. It risks alienating moderate people and gives the gun-rights movement in general a bad name. Furthermore, were I a criminal, I might shy away from a bunch of open-carriers but if I wanted to commit a crime and saw there was only one or so present, I'd shoot them first. It might not even be that effective against crime.

Why Sociopaths Make Poor (Fictional) Villains

As I have noted before, it has become common in certain quarters to assume evil people are sociopaths or psychopaths (I think they're pretty much the same thing), especially those in high places. This is something I object to for a variety of reasons (it seems to me to be a convenient way of "Othering" people one doesn't like and avoiding facing the reality of human fallibility), but one problem is that it reduces complex (albeit wicked) people into caricatures.

This io9 article written by a psychologist goes into a lot of detail about the symptoms and signs of psychopathy. Among others, psychopaths are not capable of normal emotions. They're also quite shallow emotionally. This article states they might intellectually understand the concept of sadness, but they won't feel it. The article states that Sherlock, for all his claims to be a sociopath, is not a cold, calculating machine focused only on his own gratification. Specifically, he is capable of emotional attachments, something psychopaths simply are not. This TVTropes page discusses how most fictional villains aren't actually sociopaths because real sociopaths are real-life "flat characters."

Here are some villains, both real-life and fictional, that from what I know of them don't appear to be sociopathic and are all the more complex characters for it.

Loki-The villain Loki from the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been referred to as a sociopath and in terms of bad behavior, he's done a lot--the attempted genocide of the Frost Giants, the attack on New York City that killed many thousands of people, etc. However, he has entirely too many emotional attachments. The driving force of his antics in the first movie is trying to please and/or show himself worthy of his adoptive father Odin. He sabotages Thor's coronation not (necessarily) because he wants the throne for himself but because he thinks Thor would be a poor king (and at this point in Thor's personal development, he'd be right). In the second film, when Odin calls him onto the carpet for his attack on Earth, he says he wanted to rule humans as a benevolent god--like Odin himself rules Asgard. The second film also shows how attached Loki is to his mother Frigga, including his total meltdown when he learns she was killed by the Dark Elves. He also throws Jane Foster out of the way when one of the Dark Elves throws a vortex grenade at her, even though she'd slapped him earlier. This shows he cares enough for Thor to save his love interest even if he doesn't care for the squishy mortal Jane (and he might--note the "I like her" comment after she slaps him). He's also too emotionally "deep" to be a sociopath--go to the TVTropes page for the first film, his character page, and the page for the second film and you'll see all sorts of explorations of his character.

Most importantly, Loki is supposed to be a tragic figure. If he was never "good" to start with, he can't fall into evil and make the audience sad.

Khan Noonien Singh-The greatest Original Series villain of them all, he was a dictator on Earth who fled into space and upon being defrosted in "Space Seed," nearly took over the Enterprise and was only undone by the treachery of the Starfleet officer he'd seduced. In Star Trek II:  The Wrath of Khanhe successfully took control of a Federation ship and seriously damaged the Enterprise, killing Scotty's nephew (the relationship is made clear in a deleted scene that's included in some DVD releases) and eventually no less than Mr. Spock. A pretty bad dude? Yes. However, when Kirk exiles him he was a remarkably good sport about it rather than lashing out as some kind of psychotic man-child. He accepts the presence of Lt. McGivers among them despite her ruining his plan (and according to some sources killed other Augments to make sure she was respected) and it was her death that drove him to such vengeance against Kirk. Many of the Enterprise crew admired him as "the best of tyrants" even though they knew they had to beat him. The Wikipedia article lists a bunch of positive traits uncharacteristic of a psychopath (I'm thinking primarily the "not threatened by the success of others" and encouraging other people), with the exception of the whole "lack of regard for the rights of others" part. Obviously that's not good, but that makes him a villain, not (necessarily) a psychopath. The Wikipedia article also describes him as possessing many of the same traits as Kirk, but in much larger helpings. A "Dark Kirk" is a lot more interesting than some emotionally-shallow monstrosity any day.

Adolf Hitler-We all know just how monstrous Hitler was--not only did he start WWII (in Europe) and kill six million Jews and six million others in the Holocaust, but his intention was to turn the Slavic peoples into helots for the German Spartans at a planned cost, according to my high school history textbook, of fifty million Slavic lives. Heck, just look at Generalplan Ost, something so hellacious that many people defend Stalin's industrialization-through-forced-labor-and-famine as the most viable alternative. However, this wicked man still had some very human traits. This article here corroborates Hitler's devotion to his mother (and how normal he was as a teen--he doesn't display obvious-in-hindsight warning signs like Eric Harris here), something that extended to some degree of protection for his mother's Jewish doctor later. His mistress Eva Braun's two suicide attempts seem to be motivated by a desire to get Hitler's attention--if he weren't capable of emotional attachments, that wouldn't have worked (as it did the first time). Seriously, from a purely pragmatic perspective why bother with someone that unstable? For all his many sins he must've had some legitimate feeling for her.

Darth Vader-On the issue of emotional attachments alone, Vader cannot be a psychopath or sociopath. He was quite attached to his mother and his first major crime -- the massacre of the Sand People tribe in Episode II -- was in reaction to her death. One could imagine a sociopath punishing someone for harming HIS kin, but his guilty feelings in which he confesses his sins to Padme look genuine rather than some kind of act to get her sympathy. A legitimate psychopath (at least a smart one) would keep it secret or, if he figured he'd be exposed, be "honest" but downplay it. In the third film, his devotion to Padme was what Palpatine (who credibly can be described as a psychopath) played on to corrupt him. If we're going to be playing armchair shrink, some psychologists have suggested he had borderline personality disorder. However, this article has been written in rebuttal. And he feels quite a bit of guilt over Padme's death--see this image here from this comic. Psychopaths can't feel guilt, period. And before his fall into evil, he was notably loyal to his friends.

Josef Stalin-Stalin, the dictator of the Soviet Union, presided over the mass starvation of Ukraine to export grain to fund industrial projects, his control-freak attitudes toward foreign Communists contributed to the rise of Hitler, and his paranoia-fueled purges crippled Soviet espionage efforts in the United States and the Soviet military on the eve of Barbarossa. Even though the opening of the Soviet archives reduced the number of his victims, his body count ranges from three million to 20 million. However, for all his wickedness, his mother recounted that he was a sensitive child. He was totally wrecked by his first wife's death, to the point his friends feared he would commit suicide, and however odious he was to his sons he was kind to his daughter. He also semi-adopted the son of a deceased friend. He also seems to have been at least a decent poet. An exceedingly wicked man, yes, but hardly a shallow one or one incapable of emotional attachments.

Genghis Khan-Genghis Khan founded the Mongol Empire, a realm that despite uniting most of Eurasia in a zone of free trade and travel required a ludicrous degree of brutality. The Mongols killed so many people it may have affected the Earth's climate. However, as a young man his wife Borte was kidnapped by rivals, raped, and soon after her rescue gave birth to a son. Many men in the pre-modern era would have committed infanticide at this point and possibly even killed the mother as well. To his credit, Temujin did neither. Furthermore, when the paternity issue came up when it came time to decide his succession, Temujin seems to love all of his sons, is upset when they're fighting, and points out how hurtful their behavior would be to Borte. Despite the atrocities inflicted both personally and on his orders, this is a man capable of forming emotional attachments, so he can't be a psychopath.

Eric von Shrakenberg-Here we're getting a bit obscure, but he's one of the major characters of S.M. Stirling's Draka series. The books follow him from his youth in the Domination's military during WWII in which he's under a cloud for helping his illegitimate daughter with a serf concubine (one he was very attached to, to a degree his landholding family found quite unhealthy) escape to the United States all the way to his becoming the Archon of the Domination. Along the way he seeks to reform the Draka slave system and consents to more extreme proposals for super-weapons, secret wars in space, etc. only to horse-trade for his reforms and for defensive purposes. Although he's the one who pulls the trigger on a nuclear war that kills 1/3 of the human race, his hand is forced by the rash actions of his niece and he orders it only because he knows if he refuses, he'll be killed and someone else will do it. He even remarks that all his life he's sought to free his people from "a way of life based on death" but in order to do this, he'll have to inflict more killing than any human who ever lived. Afterward, with the Domination victorious, he allows the Alliance for Democracy's starship to escape the solar system and grants (limited) Citizenship to the Alliance survivors in space as well as telling his niece he's going to be handing out Citizenship liberally, "as many as I can swing."

Although by any objective standard he's the worst murderer in human history, he's a very sympathetic, thoughtful character, not a heartless monster. That's what makes him all the more tragic--the man who would abolish the slave system (or at least reform it drastically) if he could is forced by circumstances and his own sense of duty to commit genocide on a scale undreamed of in order to extend this system over the overwhelming majority of humankind.

Bernie Madoff-Madoff is routinely considered a corporate psychopath (think the book Snakes in Suits)and given how unbelievably destructive his crimes were, it's easy to see how this account is credible. However, something that clashes with that portrayal was his taking all of the blame for the Ponzi scheme on himself. Psychopaths routinely blame others for their problems and refuse to take responsibility. He was pretty obviously trying to shield his family and associates from the blame--not surprising considering how other people were part of the plan--but the fact he was willing to protect others rather than sell them out to save himself is fairly telling. He was greedy, selfish, dishonest, and generally slimy--but his taking responsibility for his actions undermines the idea that he is a psychopath.

Magneto-This gets tricky due to all the retcons and the abominably out-of-character moment in the the second X-Men filmwhen he decides to kill all ordinary humans. However, in the comics, between his escape from the concentration camp and his daughter being killed by an angry mob frightened by his mutant powers (something I remember very vividly in a flashback scene in a comic I read a child), he lived a fairly normal, loving family life. No abuse, no affairs, no secret serial killing while maintaining an upstanding facade, none of that. This biography here describes how his creators never intended for him to be a "bad guy" per se and he's described as "charismatic, noble, and wise." When he thinks he nearly killed the young Kitty Pryde, it horrifies him so much he renounces his terrorist ways for a time and later even becomes a teacher at Xavier's school, returning to villainy only after a series of murders of mutants. There's a line I remember from one of the comics in which Xavier points out Magneto refraining from some particularly large act of villainy and says that Magneto knew that going through with this would make him a Hitler, something a Holocaust survivor would not want to be.

This is not to say that there aren't villains fictional or historical that aren't psychopaths. However much I object to using "psychopath" as some kind of post-Christian attempt to pathologize moral failings or even political disagreements, I'm not such a fool to ignore the obvious physical evidence for it. Prominent Nazi Reinhard Heydrich seemed like a totally amoral killing machine, with the only "complicated" aspect to him being his self-loathing over possible Jewish ancestry. Palpatine and Columbine mastermind Eric Harris I've already mentioned. The sadistic degenerate Ariel Castro seems to fit as well.

However, if I were writing a villain, I wouldn't use them for models and neither should you. The ones I listed above are much better examples. They're deeper, more complicated character rather than two-dimensional monsters. And if you can write them well enough that at least some readers will take their side over the protagonist, Internet fan controversies raise awareness and thus sell more books. :)

Friday, August 29, 2014

Social Justice Warriors and How "Punitive Medicine" Might Come to the United States

I came across this article by Andrew Todd and although I agree with his macro-point that people who threaten women who disagree with them with rape need to be stopped, one part I did disagree with. See below:

“Social Justice Warriors” is a term used often by these sort of people, and it’s a term whose pejorative use perplexes me, because aside from the source of its invention, it sounds like a really badass thing to be. I’d much rather label myself a Social Justice Warrior than a warrior for...whatever it is that these people are warriors for. Social justice is such an inherently positive thing - literally everyone benefits from greater equality - that it’s impossible to see its enemies as anything but sociopathic. Hatred of Social Justice Warriors can be seen as a broader hatred of social justice itself.
Apparently Mr. Todd can't distinguish between people opposed to the cause of social justice (i.e. people who are racists, sexists, etc) and people opposed to the actions and attitudes of belligerent Internet left-wingers. And furthermore, he claims that people who are racists, sexists, etc. aren't simply immoral people, but sociopaths. Assuming the notion held by some Internet left-wingers that right-wingers have something congenitally wrong with them is true (it's not), that doesn't explain why left-wingers have come out against SJWs like this gentleman has here.

Let the record state that I am strongly opposed to racism, sexism, sending rape threats, and all the various a-hole things that take up most of Mr. Todd's denunciation. Those people deserve every ounce of opprobrium that can be rained down on them--and legal action too. Let's see how tough they are when they get charged with terroristic threats and get put in the cooler with really bad dudes.

However, I've criticized the SJWs myself a fair bit because of their propensity for swearing and many occasions when their claims get ridiculous--claiming J.K. Rowling is some kind of creepy Calvinist, which strikes me as quite absurd given the amount of criticism she's received from conservative Christians. Being a blowhard is so essential to these people they've invented a term that makes calling them out for their incivility immoral--"tone policing."

Obviously one should not ignore legitimate evidence just because the person presenting said evidence is a tool--Hitler and Stalin claimed the other was evil and they were both right--but I've seen people being complete jerks and claiming people are objecting to their behavior because they want minorities to shut up, not because they're jerks. Just because someone is a supporter of an ostensibly good cause doesn't mean that anybody opposed to that person is opposed to the cause itself--I'm a Christian, but I don't interpret attacks on individual Christians or organizations that misbehave as attacks on Christianity or Jesus.

Furthermore, accusing people with disagreeable views of being mentally ill is the first step down a very dangerous road. The kind of road that ends with the Soviet psychiatric gulag. Although I remember seeing some idiot on FreeRepublic claiming the Clintons and Obama were clinical narcissists, it seems to be more common on the (secular) left because they believe people are inherently good--so therefore when the reality of human evil becomes too obvious, they decide evil people aren't really people. See this article on sociopathy on Richard Dawkins' old website, for example. Or this one about the Virginia Tech shooter. In real life, I've got one friend who said "sociopath" is the scientific term for evil, another who said it's okay to love fictional psychopaths (including Loki from the Marvel films, who based on his attachment to his mother Frigga is not a clinical psychopath however much a murderous jerk he is) but one should avoid them in real life, and a third (a vocal member of the skeptic movement) who said that one of my Wastelands-verse characters is a psychopath even though, speaking as his creator, he's not.

(For the record, I toned his actions down a bit from that version of the story. If you're a writer and your reader misinterprets your character, odds are it's your fault for not defining him or her clearly enough.)

The "evil people are sociopaths" meme is something I first noticed a lot of on the site DemocraticUnderground, where people liked to claim various prominent Republicans were psychopaths and sociopaths (presumably the corporate variety chronicled in Snakes in Suits as opposed to the stereotypical mad ax-murderer). An entire pseudo-science called "ponerology" has been invented to justify this type of thing. Here's an example of ponerology being applied politically, to the point of conspiracy theory if you take the bit at the end about "PSYCHOPATHS RULE THE WORLD" into account. Here's another example of ponerology-as-ideology.

You say these people are isolated individuals (most of whom are limited to certain quarters of the Internet) who have no real power, right? Well, for starters every one who can vote has a small amount of power and once you get enough voters, then you're talking the potential for something truly dangerous. Once notions of un-persons and that certain political views are a sign of being an un-person get traction--and it wasn't long ago that a shadow of this passed over the political landscape--watch out. And before you say, "It can't happen here," well look at what's being discussed in Britain. Or what actually has happened in New York. Or the prominence of eugenics in the United States not all that long ago. The prevalence of the "bad people are sociopaths, not regular people who have made poor or immoral decisions" meme could represent a wider cultural trend, especially as Christianity, with its notions of universal human sin and that anyone can repent of their wickedness even late in their lives, declines in influence in the United States.

I imagine someone will accuse me of indulging in the slippery slope fallacy, and I concede that A doesn't necessarily lead to B and so on. However, if I were some obscurantist, I would have denied the existence of personality disorders as a whole, despite objective evidence for them. I could mimic the young-earth crowd and try to use religion to trump science (see Romans 2:15, which implies everyone has a conscience, something psychopaths/sociopaths don't have) and claim that the notion of personality disorders will inevitably lead to psychiatric abuses, the mistreatment of the children of criminals due to their supposedly defective heredity, etc. (fallacy of appeal to consequences), much like how the young-earthers claim belief in evolution leads to racism. My main concern is not popular prejudice (although I certainly object to that), but the political implications.

Ideas have consequences. If an idea is able to spread unchallenged and people believe it--and those people can vote--it is quite likely that laws will be made to reflect that. The notion that sex offenders cannot be rehabilitated, for example, led to those laws in New York, even though it may not be true.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Blast from the Past Movie Review: Hook (1991)

What if Peter Pan grew up? That's the tag-line of the movie Hook, which I watched for my friend Nick's movie-review podcast Myopia: Defend Your Childhood yesterday afternoon. Here's the actual recording. The gist is that during one of his visits to our world, Peter Pan decides to stay, grows up to become Robin Williams, marries Wendy's granddaughter Moira, and becomes an attorney. An attorney who neglects his family and to be perfectly blunt is a massive jerk.

Then while Peter, Wendy, and Moira are attending a benefit in London, a mysterious intruder invades Wendy's home in London and abducts Peter's children. A note stuck to the door with a dagger demands Peter return to Neverland a note--signed by none other than Captain James Hook.

Uh oh. Now an out-of-shape and cranky Peter has to get his children back with the help of Tinkerbell (Julia Roberts) and the skeptical Lost Boys now led by Rufio, a 1980s punk complete with a mohawk. Let the games begin.

(Image courtesy of Wikipedia)

The Good

*Although Peter Pan was never my favorite Disney movie, I did like the concept. The film is very meta--it starts with the Peter seeing his daughter Maggie acting as Wendy in a school play production of Peter Pan. To quote TVTropes they go with the Literary Agent Hypothesis--Wendy and her brothers told their neighbor J.M. Barrie about their adventures and he wrote them into a book. The whole Peter Pan phenomenon (including the Great Ormond Street Hospital) exists alongside a real Peter Pan and Neverland. Given how the Lost Boys apparently arrive in Neverland on their own in the greater Peter Pan mythology, I liked the depiction of Lost Boys wearing old-fashioned Boy Scout uniforms, a Victorian-esque "Artful Dodger" outfit, and 1980s punk gear (Rufio) and playing basketball and using what looks like a hybrid skateboard/windsurfing board to get around.

*The film had some amusing moments. I particularly liked the non-rap rap battle between Rufio and the adult Peter that has some pretty creative (and generally kid-friendly) insults. The cadences the Lost Boys sing when they get Peter back into shape for the duel with Hook are amusing as well.

*It does pull on the heartstrings a fair bit, in particular Peter's estrangement from and ultimate reconciliation with his children. This isn't something I generally enjoy, but many people do like that and it shows the people involved in making this movie (the writers, directors, and actors) did a good job.

*Robin Williams does a good job as the adult Peter, both in his early depiction as a jerk who repeatedly breaks promises to his children and as he mellows and becomes Peter Pan again. One of the other people watching the movie said when Robin Williams isn't being a goofy funny guy he can actually be pretty scary. Although I haven't seen either film, One Hour Photo and Death to Smoochy can testify to this. We chose Hook as a memorial to Williams (as well as to Bob Hoskins, who played Smee died this year as well), so RIP Mr. Williams.

*I liked the concept of the bored Captain Hook having a straight-up death wish. This is pretty obvious in a suicide-attempt scene (that's played for laughs), but Captain Hook's threats against not only Peter's children but their children and their children and so on come off as basically "KILL ME!"

*I also liked the characterization of Tinkerbell. She's traditionally been depicted as jealous (to the point of attempted murder) of any other female in Peter's life, but in Hook she gets to actually talk about her feelings for Peter. She's even tempted to try to get him to stay with her in Neverland (and shows she can become a full-sized person if she wants), but ultimately reminds him when he's on the verge of forgetting his own family. This struggle with temptation is pretty interesting even though it doesn't take up too terribly much time.

*The pirates have their very own city complete with women and children and have organized the menfolk into a militia to be called out at need. This makes a lot of sense--the pirates when Peter was a child/teen leading the Lost Boys would have been recent arrivals, but now they've been there for (to them) many years and put down roots.

*I like how they included a back-story for Peter. I'm not going to go into detail in order to avoid spoilers, but Peter lives through various historical areas before he makes the decision to stay in our world.

The Bad

*A lot of people liked Captain Hook's introduction in which Hook's titular prosthesis is sharpened by the village blacksmith and carried to him in a gigantic procession in which the pirates all chant "Where's the Hook?" That doesn't really make a lot of sense. The pirates have been there so long they've established a functioning civilization. They know who Hook is. Unless Hook has gotten so bored with life that he's instituted these ludicrous parades every so often to liven things up, there's no reason for this scene at all.

*In one scene, Maggie sings a lullaby her mother sang to her. She has a beautiful voice, but there's no real reason for the scene to be there. I read online Hook was originally supposed to be a musical, which would explain this scene and "Where's the Hook?"--they're leftovers from the earlier version of the film. However, given how the film is not a musical, they should have just cut those out. The hook-sharpening before the parade is cool so that could be kept and if they absolutely had to have Maggie sing, she could be singing to herself in the hold or wherever Hook is keeping her and Peter could overhear it somehow.

*This movie is long and slow. I'm sorry, but it is. That's the single biggest problem with the movie and why my review is ultimately not going to be very good. If Spielberg had cut or at least truncated those two scenes and maybe trimmed a little bit here and a little bit there, it would have been a much tighter film and could have allowed more interesting material to be included, like Neverland's Indians (I'll get to them later).

*Here we're getting into spoilery territory, but the ending was rather flawed. Basically Peter defeats Hook in a duel but refuses to kill him. Instead, he orders him to leave Neverland and never return. Hook attacks him when his back is turned, but Tinkerbell intervenes to keep him from hooking Peter's face. Then the crocodile Hook had killed, stuffed, and made into the town clock tower falls on him mouth-first and basically eats him. I imagine Spielberg didn't want to have Peter actually kill Hook, but there's never any indication the crocodile is somehow still alive or is in any way magical. The Wikipedia article suggests Tinkerbell had zapped it briefly back to life somehow, but if that was Spielberg's intention, it should've been more obvious--we could see lightning racing through the crocodile and a Frankenstein-style reanimation.

And it's not like the good guys haven't killed in the movie before--even though most of the Lost Boys fight with non-lethal and rather childish weapons like egg-shooters, Peter and Rufio both stab pirates with knives and swords on-screen. The wounds might not be immediately lethal (they're to the torso rather than head or throat), but in this type of environment (i.e. no modern surgery or antibiotics), gut wounds will kill and they will kill very painfully. What measure is a Mook?

Here's how I would have done it: Keep the final duel all the way to Hook's treacherous attack after Peter has shown him mercy--but instead of being caught unaware, Peter spins around and stabs Hook with his sword. This would show he's gotten his childhood reflexes and speed back. Furthermore, if Peter stabs Hook in the gut, we could hear the blow but not see blood and so the rating wouldn't be unduly affected. And the dying Hook thanks Peter, which would further establish the death-wish characterization. To avoid overly-glorifying killing in a children's film, I'd depict Peter being saddened by having to kill his old enemy.

*Neverland's Indian population is referred to (apparently the pirates have killed some of them and Smee suggests to a bored Hook they do this some more) but never seen. The movie was already so long that including a scene where Peter visits the Indians and secures their alliance with the Lost Boys against the pirates (perhaps including an adult Tiger Lily or her children?) would have been a problem, but if they tightened the film up, it could have been really interesting.

*At the very end, when the senile former Lost Boy Tootles finds his lost marbles (sprinkled with fairy dust) and flies off to Neverland, Moira should be more shocked. Wendy, Peter, and the kids all know this sort of thing can really happen, but Moira only knows this as stories.

The Verdict

*It's a good concept and has a lot of potential, but the film is so long I wouldn't really recommend it. 5.5 out of 10.

Friday, August 15, 2014

My Thoughts on Ferguson and a Poll For You

The situation in Ferguson, Missouri seems to be winding down right now, but it was a pretty wild few days. We had such wonderful things as:

*The police using what looks a lot like military equipment to intimidate protesters.

*Rioting and destruction of property.

*Armed store owners keeping the hooligans away.

*Journalists roughed up in a McDonald's.

*Journalists getting gassed.

*Foreign propaganda outlets use this to make Americans look like a bunch of hypocrites.

*Someone writing in a respectable outlet called it a "police coup."

*I'd heard something about a state representative getting arrested too, but I haven't been able to find any corroborating evidence. I think it was referring to this state senator getting tear-gassed.

*Real soldiers sounding off on how inept the police were even with their military hardware and how if this was the "militarization" of the police force, it was the most inept militarization they'd ever seen.

*Cops telling people not to film them, even though that's perfectly legal.

*The hacker militia Anonymous shutting down much of Ferguson's government.

*A no-fly zone being declared. Very convenient for keeping away news choppers, I think, although it's the FAA and not the local cops declaring it.

Here're my thoughts. I identify as a conservative politically and/or as a Libertarian and I think this is bugnuts insane. Even IF the police shooting that set this all off was justified--and based on witness reports it almost certainly was not--the police massively overreacted to citizens exercising their rights to speak freely, assemble, petition the government for redress of grievances, etc. That the local thug element used this as an opportunity to make trouble doesn't justify the sheer overkill involved.

Some online left-wingers have been claiming Tea Party types, libertarians, militia types, people waving the Gadsden Flag, etc. have been awfully quiet about the situation, with the implication they're entirely cool with brutal police-state stuff if it's directed at black people.

Well, as a big fan of the Gadsden Flag (I plan on having the protagonist in my Wastelands series use it as his personal insignia), here's my response:

The police here have been behaving in a ridiculous manner, to the point their authority in the area has been revoked and the State Highway Patrol (led by a black officer who grew up in the area) has been brought in. Things seem to have gotten a lot better.

(And by the way, libertarians have been complaining for awhile.)

Now for some political thoughts:

*The militarization of the police has gotten absurd in this country. I could understand the need to have some kind of heavy iron for an emergency, but a lot of departments have stocked up on gear they're not likely to ever need short of an alien invasion. I'm an Eagle Scout and I'm all for being prepared, but there's not unlimited money out there. Although the problem in this situation is more of attitude than equipment, I'll steal a page from Rahm Emmanuel and suggest that a good crisis never go to waste. A relevant bill has been put forward. At the very least it might help control government spending.

*From eyewitness reports, the officer straight-up murdered the man. The robbery-suspect thing seems like an ex post facto justification for what happened, given how it didn't come out for days. If the eyewitness claim is true (it may not be--there hasn't been much of an investigation so far), he needs to be charged with the appropriate degree of murder and subject to the appropriate punishment (up to and including execution). Police have a reputation for closing ranks in the event of an accusation of wrongdoing and that needs to stop for the sack of justice.

*I've seen the suggestion floating around the Internet about having police carry small cameras on their persons to record the events of their shift. This seems like a good idea, in order to reduce police brutality and provide evidence to protect the cops themselves if a suspect attacks them and then claims to have been brutalized. It might also give them another source of information for their reports and all. Here's a poll from one of my major clients on cop cameras. If you could vote in it, that would be spiffy.

And because I'm a nerd, here's a selection from Battlestar Galactica about why the police and military are two different things.