Thursday, May 28, 2015

Blast from the Past Movie Review: Titan A.E. (2000)

For the podcast Myopia: Defend Your Childhood organized by my friend Nick, we watched the 2000 animated science fiction film Titan A.E. Here's the podcast. And now for the review...

The Plot

In the year 3028 AD, Earth was destroyed by the alien Drej, reducing the human survivors to the disdained homeless people of the galaxy on the slow path to extinction. However, young Cale Tucker, son of a scientist who created the mysterious Titan, might (literally) have the key to humanity's future on his hand. Cale and his dubious human and alien allies have to race against the Drej to secure the Titan, facing all sorts of adventures along the way.


The Good

*Animation in the United States is generally viewed as something for kids only, but outside of the U.S. there's animation for all age levels. Britain had When The Wind Blows, Watership Down, and The Plague Dogs, while Japan gave us The Grave of the Fireflies and an anime version of Starship Troopers, on top of Akira and a bunch of other anime I'm less familiar with. All of these (with the possible exception of the Starship Troopers one) are incredibly dark. War of the Worlds: Goliath with all its sex and violence was made in Malaysia, although that might've been due to production costs rather than the country's film culture. 

Titan A.E. if it were a live-action film would've been PG-13 or R. There's the opening destruction of the Earth in a far more scary, genocidal fashion than the destruction of Alderaan in Star Wars, a lot of gunfights with blood and on-screen deaths, somebody getting their neck snapped, some non-sexual nudity, and a rather suggestive scene in which a female character tells a male character "in or out" (of her room) while wearing only a towel. 

This might be why the film was such a failure at the box office--it was marketed to children, for whom it might not be that appropriate, but animation is generally viewed as kiddie fare by adults--but I will give Don Bluth and friends props for the courage needed to escape the paradigm and make an animated movie for adult sci-fi audiences.

*The beginning of the movie is still pretty impressive. It starts out with a bang with the human refugees fleeing Earth while the Drej ravage the fleeing spacecraft while their planet-killer moves into position. And then when the Earth is blown up, flying chunks of debris take out several spacecraft and even seriously screw up the Moon. I'd feared the special effects wouldn't hold up (in particular the CGI), but watching it on Kindle in HD it still looked pretty cool.

Plus there's an early introduction to the young Joseph Korso that I don't remember noticing when I saw the movie the first time. He's the soldier whom Cale's father addresses briefly when he's going to launch the Titan. He'll be quite important later on.

*The film does explore racial issues in kind of a subtle way--a couple of thuggish aliens warn Cale that they don't like his "attitude" and one of them says he's being "uppity." That word, when applied to black Americans, has certain racist connotations. If the idea is to teach (white people) a lesson about racism by depicting the Aryan-looking Cale getting oppressed by a couple space monsters, that's a clever way to do it.

*The film generally moves along at a pretty brisk pace. By 23 minutes in, we know the basic plot--that Cale is necessary for finding the Titan and saving humanity from eventually extinction--and there've been some exciting action scenes, including an invasion of the space station where Cale lives by a squad of murderous Drej. There is an exception to this, which I'll get to later.

*The creators remembered there's such a thing as Newtonian physics. During the Drej assassination attempt on Cale, the station's artificial gravity is shut off and people get propelled by the recoil of their guns like little rockets. And when Cale and Korso eject from their crippled shuttle after escaping the station, Korso uses the shuttle's fire extinguisher to propel them through the vacuum onto his ship. And when a character is shot in zero gravity, his blood floats in spheres.

*There are some really impressive landscapes and space-scapes, including an incredibly dangerous field of ice and debris where one ship hunts another like a pair of submarines in a WWII movie.

*Two major characters are an interracial couple (white Anglo-American and apparently Japanese) and nobody cares. In a future with aliens I imagine intra-human differences are going to be less important (and people prone to disliking "out-groups" will have an even more blatant target), plus when humanity is slowly going extinct I doubt people will be that picky about their partner's pigmentation (or even culture, for that matter).

The Bad

*In the opening scene, we see human fighters in the air as the ships lift off with the refugees, but in orbit the Drej fighters are massacring defenseless civilian spacecraft. Where were the fighters? The opening space sequence is already so busy that I doubt adding a couple dogfights would be impossible. Just remove a couple civilian ships if there's a risk of overcrowding.

*I didn't like a lot of the dialogue. Some of it was too on the nose, while other times it didn't feel realistic.

*The movie kind of drags in the middle, complete with an unnecessary scene where Korso lets Cale take his ship, the Valkyrie, for a spin in a nebula. Given how they're racing the Drej for the Titan, one would think there'd be a little bit of urgency.

*The song on the soundtrack when we first see Cale as an adult working in a spacecraft salvage yard is really annoying. The same with the song playing when Cale and Akima and the people of a drifter colony rebuild a derelict spacecraft.

*It's not clear why this bird-like alien race help Cale and his friends at the risk of getting attacked by the Drej. A bit more explanation would have been helpful.

*A character's treachery only has the barest foreshadowing. It would be a lot better if this person was being evasive or obviously not telling Cale the whole truth from the beginning. Instead the character seems like a pretty honest friend and even an idealist (in contrast to the cynical Cale, who grew up bullied by aliens and has a chip on his shoulder)...until they suddenly become a belligerent, selfish cynic who, later in the movie, becomes downright zealous in his attempts to kill Cale. Even if it's not clear to Cale that this person isn't trustworthy, there should have been more hints dropped earlier. And the character's apparent rationale for treachery--that the Drej can't be beaten due to being "pure energy" and so they might also well get what they can as humanity dies out--is ridiculous given how many of them that get killed with human weapons in the first part of the film. And another character's motivation for treachery doesn't make too much sense and comes out of nowhere.

*The derelict spacecraft two characters refurbish initially looks a lot bigger, like it's an integral part of the space station. It seemed odd that the other people on the station would allow them to just make off with it. Once it's actually launched it's more clear that this was the space equivalent of a car left on top of cinder blocks in someone's front yard.

*Not all the special effects have held up. There are a fair number of scenes where the Valkyrie  (and the derelict ship, refurbished as the Phoenix) are obvious rendered models moving around a world made of cel animation. The same with the Drej aliens themselves. The Drej situation could be defended on artistic grounds, since they're energy beings as opposed to made of meat and this would emphasize just how alien they are. However, they still look a tad bit too video-gamey for me. This culminates in the denouement of the film after the climactic last confrontation with the Drej, as a cel-animated landscape transforms into a world resembling that of the first Myst game in a very dated CGI way. According to TVTropes, production had gotten very rushed at this point, which might explain it.

(According to TVTropes the film had a rather long and troubled production process, which could explain many of its flaws.)

The Verdict

Good, but flawed. Could have been great. 8.0 out of 10.0. Definitely see it once.

What The Storm Brings, Or Stannis Captures Viserys and Danaerys...

The alternate-history forum I've been a member of since high school has spawned another alternate-universe fan-fiction. Behold "What The Storm Brings," another story posted on Archive of Our Own. 

The gist of it is that the winds blow a bit differently after the Sack of King's Landing and Robert Baratheon's coronation as King of the Seven Kingdoms. The fleet of Stannis Baratheon takes Dragonstone as Queen Rhaella, the wife of the Mad King, goes into labor with Danaerys. In her dying delirium she mistakes Stannis for his father Steffon and makes him promise to protect her children. This promise Stannis makes, and he sticks to it in the face of his vindictive brother's fury. Fortunately Jon Arryn is able to calm things down.

There are only three chapters posted thus far, but the opening drops some significant hints...

Wind blows differently one fateful day and a king's brother arrives on Dragonstone just as a queen gives birth, only to make a promise to this dying woman. More than a decade later on the very island, a silver-haired girl grows up a prisoner in all but name, betrothed to her guardian's son and craving for the world she has never had the chance to see. Elsewhere, a wolf loses his head and war erupts through the nation, a stag wearing a wreath of roses sets his eyes on a throne of swords, the suns and the spears dream of vengeance, and a pride of lions struggles to keep a carefully built kingdom from falling apart.

or,


AU: Stannis Baratheon raises Daenerys Targaryen from infancy and nothing is ever the same again.

I'm getting a "Rapunzel from Tangled" vibe from Danaerys at the moment. Granted, Stannis is a much, much more benign guardian than Mother Goethel was, and he wouldn't deliberately deceive her or keep her ignorant the way Goethel did. However, I imagine Robert would forbid her from visiting King's Landing and might insist that she not leave Dragonstone, ever. Meanwhile, it looks like the events generally play out the same as canon--Ned is killed and this provokes a war, the youngest Baratheon brother Renly allies with House Tyrell to take the throne, the Martells plot and scheme, and the Lannisters are in charge.

I'd suggested that Danaerys be betrothed to Robert's firstborn for dynastic purposes--marrying her off to anybody else would give the resulting children a female-line Targaryen claim to the throne, much like the one Robert had--but it looks like silverandviolet isn't going for that. Some people were convinced Robert would be absolutely irrational on the issue and it looks like he is. Alternatively, he made the agreement and then broke it, perhaps with Cersei egging him on.

And some good news for Stannis--Robert makes a different marriage for him. No unpleasant Selyse to be found. Not going to give anything away right now though.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Summer 2015 Movies I Want To See

The summer is when a lot of really fun movies come out, and so far this summer has been no exception. I really enjoyed Avengers: Age of Ultron and Mad Max: Fury Road, and those are the only two "summer movies" I've seen so far.

Here are some coming out later I'd like to see:

*San Andreas-Something tells me the science involved is going to be highly dubious (think The Day After Tomorrow), but I saw the film Volcano when I was a lot younger and I remember enjoying it. We shall see. I could definitely imagine sitting this one out, but the trailer I saw with Mad Max looks kind of cool.

*Spy-Most "super-spy" characters are male and those who aren't are generally conventionally attractive women. This film subverts that trope big-time and, from the commercials at least, looks pretty funny.

*Jurassic World-The most recent trailer looks somewhat disheartening by implying the monstrous Indominus rex can somehow communicate with other dinosaurs (as opposed to being smart enough to break open their cages to wreak havoc), but I'm still going to see it anyway. Myopia: Defend Your Childhood, the movie podcast I'm in, is going to be making this a special event. Plus it's got Chris Pratt training raptors into his personal posse. :)

*Terminator: Genisys: This looks like the one I'm most likely to skip after San Andreas, but some of the concepts like Sarah Connor being raised by the Terminator, Emilia Clarke (Danaerys Targaryen from Game of Thrones) as Sarah Connor, and the warlord John Connor somehow getting sent back the present day infected with a machine virus (it shows up in the most recent trailer) do seem interesting.

*Ant-Man-I haven't missed a single Marvel Cinematic Universe outing so far, and although I certainly complained about the big twist in Iron Man III, they were all good movies. Ant-Man has the post potential to be bad given how unimpressive the titular character's powers are, but Guardians of the Galaxy had the potential to be a train-wreck too and it turned out awesome. The MCU hasn't disappointed me yet...

*Fantastic Four-Unlike many others I enjoyed the previous FF films (the first one more so than the second), but this doesn't look bad. We shall see.

I've gotten more selective in my movie viewing these last few years and since I've got my graduate school comprehensive exams in middle and later June, I'll need to be more careful with my time. I doubt they'll be in and out of theaters in the meantime, but then again, Outlander (the one with the alien-human Beowulf and alien-monster Grendel, not the one with handsome Scots) wasn't in theaters that long either...

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

An Insurgency in BABYLON FIVE?

I met pulp author Van Allen Plexico at DragonCon a couple years ago and we're friends on Facebook. Earlier today, he posted this article, "The 'Missing Insurgency' of Babylon Five's Final Seasons."

The gist of it is that Plexico expected evil Earth leader Morgan Clark to have more popular support among the Earth Alliance population. His regime was not in power long and humans who didn't openly challenge the regime were likely left alone. Meanwhile, rebel commander John Sheridan, due to his alliance with the Minbari (who had nearly eviscerated the human race a little over a decade before) would perfectly fulfill Clark's propaganda against aliens and their allies. Given how Clark had taken control of Earth's media outlets, he had years to fill Earth's population's collective heads with half-truths if not outright lies about Sheridan and friends. Consequently, Sheridan and the White Stars should have faced a lengthy postwar insurgency even after their victory in the Earth Alliance Civil War.

I suggested that Clark's last-minute "Scorched Earth" attempt to turn the planet's defenses against the population would have been enough to absolutely discredit Clark, his regime, and anything associated with it. After all, shooting yourself and trying to take all of Earth's people down with you has a way of making everybody hate you. Furthermore, although anti-interventionists often claim that people will rally around a dictator against a foreign threat no matter how bad they are, the Italians in WWII greeted Allied troops as liberators even before Mussolini fell and the Germans came in en masse.

Plexico's response was that Mussolini had been misgoverning Italy for years and was in the process of losing a long war against the Allies, in contrast to Clark's regime that was only in power for around three. Furthermore, Clarkist die-hards could claim "Scorched Earth" was propaganda by Sheridan's allies. Considering how it took a lengthy space battle to neutralize Earth's orbital weapons, it does seem plausible that pro-alien traitor would claim Clark had intended to massacre his own population when his real goal was to cripple Earth's defenses for his alien masters.

I wasn't really familiar with Babylon Five even though I did watch Babylon Five: In the Beginning on television once and I remember the episode in which Sheridan's rebels raced against time to stop Earth's defense platforms from firing. I did a bit of reading and found that the worst of Clark's atrocities (i.e. mass killing, as opposed to just dissolving the elected government) took place off-Earth. This would explain why so many Earth warships, which would have faced a choice of committing war crimes or mutiny, defected to Sheridan's rebellion. However, with his control of the media, Clark could have deceived the people on Earth itself about the nature of his military activities abroad and the nature of the uprising. Consequently, even though most of the Earth Alliance would view Sheridan and company as heroes, there might be a large number of people on Earth who would think otherwise. Those people could be a problem later on.

A possible model for how this could have happened is Iraq in our history. The insurgency could consist of die-hard Clark supporters analogous to the Baathists, open followers of the Shadows analogous to Islamists (Clark was in league with them, but given his regime's xenophobia, I imagine this was kept quiet), and, for a touch of moral grayness, "Earth nationalist" rebels who disavow the horrors of Clark's regime but think Sheridan, the Interstellar Alliance, etc. are a subtle alien takeover of Earth.

You wouldn't even really need that many--a small crew of Clarkist fanatics or those still devoted to the Shadows even after they left the galaxy (think the human equivalent of the Drakh) could stir up trouble in hopes of provoking a crackdown by Sheridan's human troops or (even better) alien allies, which would vindicate them in the eyes of the people and attract more support. Heck, if the show wanted a sympathetic human foe, someone who means well but has been deceived by evil people and/or aliens (like the Shadows), simply wants to pull the Earth Alliance out of the Interstellar Alliance due to isolationism and lack of a Shadow threat, or was just really traumatized by service in the war with the Minbari and isn't thinking straight would work. It doesn't have to be a major plot arc--maybe a one-off episode where a bunch of PTSD-addled veterans of the Earth-Minbari War try to assassinate Sheridan or commit some kind of outrage on Babylon Five itself.

Thing is, Babylon Five ran from 1994 to 1998. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (especially the latter) were well into the future. Even the Kosovo War, which featured an Albanian insurgency that deliberately provoked the government to attack civilians, a thuggish Yugoslav government all too willing to be thuggish, and an international intervention that resulted in vast numbers of Serb and Romani (Gypsy) civilians fleeing possible Albanian reprisal, was still in the future. Although I could credit B5 creator J. Michael Straczynski with enough creativity to potentially come up with this on his own, the real-life incidents that would inspire such episodes and resonate with the viewer (think about how the Iraqi occupation inspired much of the New Caprica arc in Battlestar Galactica) had not happened yet.

It could still be a pretty cool story though.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Writing Update, Featuring the World Horror Conference...

The weekend before last, I got the chance to volunteer at the World Horror Conference, which came to Atlanta this year. Although I've been to DragonCon and AnachroCon multiple times, this is the first time I've attended a conference dedicated solely to horror and the first time I've worked as a volunteer in that context. And I got a gig as a panel monitor, which meant I could watch panels so long as I kept all the speakers hydrated, kept the room clean, etc.

Not only did I get to see some interesting panels, but I got to make some very useful contacts. I talked with representatives from a small press (I'm not going to name said press at the moment, for reasons you will see) and pitched them The Thing in the Woods. They were interested, and one of the relevant editors gave me what looks like a personal e-mail address to send it to. I spent the last week editing the book (mostly for style and some minor grammatical quibbles) and put it in the press's preferred format and submitted it to all the appropriate e-mail addresses last Saturday. The press's response time is within 90 days, with six months on the outside. Now all that there is to do is wait and keep my fingers crossed.

The conference also yielded an unexpected bonus. I attended pitch sessions hoping to snag a spot with one press I was interested in as a possible market for Thing. Instead I was seated with another press, one that puts out horror that's too gruesome for me and for whom Thing would not be a good project. So on a whim I decided to pitch my on-hiatus bizarro story Little People, Big Guns, which features a group of little people making war on a pack of badgers that killed one of their own, to another imprint by the same company. They were really impressed, which one of them said was the most entertaining pitch they'd heard all day. However, they said it sounded like Act I rather than a full novel. Their rule is to keep the insanity escalating. So on the fly I came up with Act II and Act III, the former of which involves the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (which would explain one character's strange behavior in Act I) and the latter of which involves a gigantic bear-sized badger and said character missing a foot and with a literal ax to grind.

They liked the plot, and so now I've got another project to write. Considering how I originally intended for this to be a short story (or at most a novella) I'd self-publish on Amazon for the Kindle, the possibility that this could be a published novel (albeit probably a short one) is a major boon.

Finally, I met a cool guy who's a voice-actor. Given my earlier dabbling with the idea of making "I am the Wendigo" into an audio book, this could be a really useful connection. I've got a lot going on right now, but I've definitely saved his business card.

So let this be a lesson to all aspiring writers--if you want to make good contacts, network, and pitch, volunteering at conferences is one way to do it. However, you should take pains not to be obnoxious or in it for yourself. Remember, volunteering is work, and you should put that first. Don't worry, there'll be plenty of time for the stuff you want to do as well.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Movie Review: Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

Just got back from seeing Mad Max: Fury Road with my friend David. Although I'd never seen any of the prior movies (except for a bit of the ending of Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome and something from probably the original involving a bad guy handcuffed to a car that's set on fire, all on TV), the reviews were really, really good. I figured the Mad Max films were kind of episodic in nature and so I wouldn't need to see the earlier ones, so off I went...

The Plot

In the desolate future, the tyrannical Immortan Joe (who looks like a post-apocalyptic version of Mortal Kombat's Shao Khan with the Dark Knight Rises's Bane vocals) rules over an isolated citadel where he controls the water supply and has a harem of some of the few remaining attractive women. His concubines--two of whom are pregnant--escape with the help of Joe's honored warrior Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) and are soon joined by the wanderer Max (Tom Hardy), who had been taken captive and used as a blood donor. Joe and his barbarian horde are soon on their tail and the women--and Max--have to brave a gauntlet of other barbarians to find the mystical "green lands."

The Good

*The movie starts out quickly, with Max getting captured by the forces of Immortan Joe and making an abortive escape attempt before the title appears.

*Max and Furiosa are pretty impressive, skilled characters and I like both them and the actors that played them. They're both very Genre Savvy in terms of how prepared they are for trouble and how they recognize traps. And although I didn't like Rosie Huntington-Whiteley's performance in Transformers: Dark of the Moon (although that might've had a lot to do with the fact I didn't like Carly replacing Mikaela as the female lead), she does a good job as Angahard, Immortan Joe's favored wife.

*Speaking of Immortan Joe's concubines, it was realistic that once they've escaped the citadel and learn firsthand how harsh and horrible life outside is some of them would want to go back. Harriet Tubman had to threaten runaway slaves with a rifle on occasion who'd gotten cold feet on the whole "escape from slavery" thing.

*You don't need to have seen the previous movies to see this one.

*The film is visually pretty awesome. There're warriors who attack big rigs and larger vehicles using grenade-tipped spears ("car-poons"?) like whalers on the hunt. Immortan Joe's army including a truck that's got a gigantic array of drums on the back and a guitar player hanging suspended on the front. Said truck also provides some of the more impressive parts of the film's soundtrack.

*Speaking of the soundtrack, the music is generally quite good. A lot of metal and drums, which given the world this is set in, works well.

*I like what they did with the eager but sickly warrior Nux, who worships Immortan Joe. He goes from just another Mook to an interesting character in his own right. Immortan Joe and his son Rictus have a couple softer moments as well.

*One of Immortan Joe's concubines reveals she's pregnant and bitterly remarks her child will probably be ugly. One new character they encounter (not going to go into more detail for reasons of spoilers) gently points out the child could be a girl. Given some of the graffiti they leave behind when they escape (more on that later), the idea their children would be anything other than Warboys-to-be seems to have never occurred to them.

*Although Immortan Joe's wives have shades of the notion that to be feminine is to be pacifist (the graffiti they leave behind implies that the pregnant ones rebelled at the thought of their children growing up to be warlords and they insist on no unnecessary killing during the escape), their kindness does prove useful in redeeming one of the villainous characters. And they're willing to push this aside when killing proves necessary.

The Bad

*Way too many fade-outs. It was like back when I was watching The Return of the King and wondering if the movie was over...until it wasn't. Granted, these were in the middle of the movie and so I knew it wasn't over, but it was a poor decision on the part of the editor, the director, or whomever was in charge. This was the single biggest flaw in the movie.

*It's implied that one group of baddies are trapped and left at the mercy of another group of baddies, but this isn't explained very well. I was able to figure that out, but it would have been better if we at least saw the beginning of what I imagine happened once their pursuit of the heroes was stopped. I shouldn't have to come up with explanations on my own.

*Some of the dialogue isn't very good.

*It's hard to figure out many of the characters' names. I had to read reviews in order to learn most of them. Max, Imperator Furiosa, Immortan Joe, Rictus, and the allied villain People Eater were the ones I was able to pick out, but the names of the wives and various minor characters, nope.

*Max has too many flashbacks to a little girl who's probably his daughter. These become very important during the climactic battle, but they could be reduced in number somewhat.

*A villain is killed off-screen with just some explosions in the fog. I felt slightly cheated.

*If you don't enjoy the grotesque, you might not enjoy some parts of this movie. Between fat women farmed for breast milk, a deformed little man who operates the citadel's telescopes, etc., there's some stuff weaker stomachs might find kind of gross.

*The movie kind of dragged a bit in the middle.

The Verdict

See it once. It's entertaining, but flawed. 8.0 out of 10.0.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

A Warhammer Fantasy Vampire in Westeros?

The alternate history forum I've been a member of since high school has gone and done it again. There's a new A Song of Ice and Fire fan-fic out there. In this one, entitled "A Game of Fangs," a Warhammer Fantasy vampire (an original-character named Sybelle Von Carstein, specifically) and her immediate entourage due to a magical mishap end up in Westeros as the War of the Five Kings breaks out. I'm guessing in terms of the story timeline, it'd be early in A Clash of Kings.

Highlights:

*The vampire and her entourage materialize in the vicinity of Harrenhal and the first major character to encounter them is Arya Stark. The relationship between Sybelle and Arya is nice to read and sets an interesting path before Arya later on.

*Sybelle herself is an interesting character. She's undeniably ruthless and dangerous, but she's not malicious or sadistic. Yes, she's a magic-wielding vampire with imperial ambitions, but she's not gratuitously mean.

*Sybelle's arrival in the world and the magic she invokes to return to her full power causes all sorts of portents and freak occurrences to happen. Including some unpleasantness with Ned Stark's skeleton. :)

*Melisandre views Sybelle as an agent of the Great Other and things proceed accordingly. She's one of the few actual sorcerers in Westeros, so this is going to be fun.

*Sybelle's arrival causes enemies to become allies, but Sybelle herself becomes a cunning player in the Game of Thrones. This has some interesting consequences...

*We get POVs from characters who never got any in the ASOIAF canon, including Robb Stark and Sandor Clegane.

*Speaking of Sandor Clegane, he gets a very surprising Crowning Moment of Awesome.

The story is still ongoing, so hopefully it'll continue to be fun. Enjoy!

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Some Good Books From Graduate School...

I will soon hand in my last assignment for a class on global social movements, completing the coursework for a master's degree in history (major world, minor U.S.) at Georgia State University in Atlanta. All that remains is the oral and written exams I'll be taking this June and I'll have my M.A.

As part of earning a master's degree, one has to read a lot of books. I chose the non-thesis option, so I had to take ten classes instead of nine. And that means even more books. Luckily this is a subject I'm strongly interested in, so reading wasn't a chore at all.

Below are some of my favorite graduate-school books and the reasons why I enjoyed them.

Mao's Little Red Book: A Global History-Editor Alexander Cook oversaw an anthology of articles by different historians focusing on different situations using Mao's Little Red Book as the lens. And it's really interesting--you have the student left in 1960s and 1970s Germany, you have the Shining Path in Peru, you have the Maoist-ish regime in Tanzania, and China during the Cultural Revolution. Plus it's provided me with some choice dystopian bits like every village having a loudspeaker providing the population with the regime's guidance--and in some cases loudspeakers inside people's houses they can't turn off.

Before European Hegemony-This book describes the world system from the 13th Century until the Portuguese rounded the Cape of Good Hope and entered the Indian Ocean with armed warships. The bare bones of this world system are wool from England is made into textiles in the Low Countries, traded by Italians into the Middle East, and eventually from there goes to India, the East Indies, and China. But that's a massive oversimplification. My main problem with the book is that it understates the role of Islamic piracy in the Mediterranean in the Dark Ages (something the Pelican History of Medieval Europe points out), but that's a pretty small nitpick.

Killing for Coal-This book is about the big 1914 coal strike in Colorado. It's generally remembered for the Ludlow Massacre, but not for the fact that the miners proceeded to spend the week after the massacre beating the crap out of the Colorado state militia. Seriously, if things hadn't been headed off, there could've been some kind of statewide U.S. version of the Paris Commune. The book is a really interesting exploration of the coal industry at the time, the labor struggles wracking it, and just how darn important coal was for the U.S. at the time. This book played a major role in my decision to add more class-labor elements to the Wastelands series I'm working on, plus it was a source of really interesting information on what coal was used for. Fortunately most of Battle for the Wastelands (the first book, which is already written) takes place in a more rural area among soldiers scrabbling to maintain a limited technological base; it's the second novel, Battle for the Wastelands: Escape (formerly titled Escape from the Wastelands) where this influence will be felt.

Before Columbus-This book examines the Mediterranean antecedents of the Spanish settlement of the New World. There's a very interesting historical analogy involving the Reconquista. Parts of Spain the Christians conquered from the Muslims were like the British Empire in India, with a large number of Muslims ruled by a Christian/collaborator ruling class, while others were like the American West with a relatively small Muslim population and a much more arid landscape. I remember reading somewhere that Spanish kids play "Moros y Christianos" instead of "Cowboys and Indians" and that might be the inspiration for it. The Colombian Exchange, one of the books I'm reading for my exams this June, definitely compares the cowboy culture of the Spanish New World with Spain before the Muslims were expelled.

The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II-I first learned about this from an excerpt in the historiography book The Houses of History and ordered an abridged one-volume work for a paper on the influence of author Braudel. It's a good example of the "longue duree" type of history with a strong dose of environmental determinism. Very interesting.

White Flight-Although I question the argument that modern American conservatism emerged from specific policies intended to stymie integration (there are non-racist reasons to oppose expansion of mass transit, after all), this is still a very interesting history of Atlanta, the city supposedly "too busy to hate" during the Civil Rights era in the U.S. Lots of interesting stuff, including what happened to an American Neo-Nazi trying to keep blacks from moving into a particular neighborhood in the late 1940s. Seriously, antagonizing a prosecutor who's a WWII Marine veteran is a really, really bad idea. Also provides an interesting political history of Atlanta and the surrounding communities before, during, and after the civil rights era.

Birth of the Modern World-Another book I'm reading for exams this June. This is book is notable for introducing me to the "industrious revolution" paradigm that predates the Industrial Revolution and puts the American Indian wars in the context of Australian wars against Aborigines and the wars of the British and their Indian clients against tribal peoples in India. Growing industrial states finally suppressing tribal/nomadic peoples, basically.

Britons-A very interesting book about the origins of the British national identity. Some of the material early on really de-romanticizes the Jacobites (apparently they weren't even that popular in Scotland) and uses patterns of landownership and intermarriage to describe the growth of a collective "British" identity incorporating English, Welsh, Scots, etc.

American Babylon-I met the author while selling books at a conference and he was very pleased to know that I liked this book, which is about the growth and decay of Oakland, better than Origins of the Urban Crisis, which is about the growth and decay of Detroit. The latter is considered one of the best books in the field, but I thought American Babylon was written better and more detailed.

Sacred Gifts, Profane Pleasures-Chocolate and tobacco were used in sacred and political ceremonies by the indigenous populations of the Spanish New World. So how exactly did they become popular foods/products in Europe? This book explains how. It's also got some interesting stuff about how the Indians adapted to Spanish rule and how the Spanish colonists picked up a lot of indigenous culture in Mexico.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

In Defense of Joss Whedon (But Not The Marvel Swag Department)

The other day, I learned that Joss Whedon has left Twitter and some people attributed it to attacks on him by feminists and "social justice warriors" (a term I use solely to refer to belligerent vicious cyberbullies who happen to have socially left-wing views, not legitimate opponents of racism and the like). Here's a link to a Storify someone made depicting some of the nasty things they said to Whedon, including possible legally-actionable threats. Their major beef seems to be the Black Widow storyline in Avengers: Age of Ultron, although some are mad about about the deaths of certain characters and Whedon's tendency to throw snark into everything.

Whedon himself has recently said that it wasn't feminists who have driven him off Twitter--he points out how various social movements are constantly attacking each other and him--but because it was proving to be a distraction from his real job, writing awesome stuff. Social media is a massive time-waster, so let's hope he's getting a lot more productive. However, given how feminists have written that dealing with Internet harassment is taxing to female writers and might deter them from writing, surely Internet harassment of a male writer is bad too, though I doubt someone as successful as Joss Whedon is going to give up on his dreams over this.

(According to one article I read people talking trash about Whedon are getting death threats themselves. Given how SJWs often claim their harassment, attempts to get people fired from their jobs, etc. are nothing more than "consequences" of "hate speech," the fact they're reaping the consequences of their own odiousness is quite appropriate.)

And now here's where I dispute the claims that the Black Widow's depiction in Age of Ultron is sexist...

*Natasha Romanoff's reference to herself being a "monster" is not solely about her infertility (sterilization being the final phase of the "Red Room" training program for female assassins), but about how they trained her her entire life to be a killer. The sterilization--to avoid the possibility of something one of their assassins would love more than the mission--is played up alongside images of the young Romanoff using a bound, hooded man as live target practice. It's all part of a greater dehumanizing process to make an ordinary girl into something that exists for the sole purpose of destruction.

*It was Bruce who brought up his inability to father children -- either the radiation bombardment that made him the Hulk has left him "shooting blanks" or he might "Hulk out" during sex, something implied in The Incredible Hulk -- first. She then revealed her own problem as a means of connecting with him.

*Even if she views herself as a monster due to being unable to have children, that doesn't mean Joss Whedon thinks women who can't or won't have kids are monsters. S.M. Stirling put it well when he said there was a term for someone who thought a character having an opinion meant the author shared it--idiot. That obviously doesn't hold true in all cases--see obvious Author Tracts like neo-Nazi The Turner Diaries or most stuff by Ayn Rand--but Joss Whedon is not one of those people. A character hating herself for something that's not her fault is called a character flaw. Someone doesn't have to be perfect to be a strong female character. There was an article I read online yesterday I can't find at the moment (maybe it's on my phone) that points out this latest wrinkle is further building on the character we've seen several times before.

*Although being infertile obviously sucks for her, it made her relationship with Hawkeye's family and how his children (especially his daughter) view her as a beloved aunt all the more poignant. She might not be able to have (biological) children of her own, but she has found a family.

*Her getting kidnapped by Ultron does not make her a Damsel In Distress. She could have escaped from that dungeon at any time--in The Avengers she's tied to a chair with three big strong Russian mob types standing around her and she takes all of them apart--but instead she stuck around to get hold of a radio and transmit Ultron's location to the rest of the team. Her remaining "imprisoned" prompted Bruce to "rescue" her himself, thus allowing her to "trigger" the Hulk (by shoving him off a cliff). Knowing how Bruce fears that side of himself to point he attempted suicide sometime before the first Avengers film and how before she was terrified of the Hulk, the fact she was willing to trigger "the other guy" for the sake of the mission shows a lot of strength on her part. Furthermore, during the Red Room flashbacks, her trainer comments on how she "pretends to lose." There's a TVTrope for this--Wounded Gazelle Gambit. She uses people's (or snarky robots') notion that because she's a woman she's not a threat to her advantage.

*I'm not the only person who's seen Romanoff as a feminist character in all this. See this article here. This article here also defends the baby-issues plot and Romanoff as a character.

However, there is at least one legitimate criticism to be made on feminist grounds. Something I noticed in the stores is that the Black Widow has not been included in Avengers merchandise; this is something that's been going on for years. According to the Legion of Leia, only three out of the sixty promotional products for the movie at present feature her at all.

Ahem? In terms of seniority, she's got most of the team beat. Based on her dialogue with Loki in the first film, I'm guessing Hawkeye was the first member of the modern Avengers and he recruited her after he "made a different call" when sent to Russia to assassinate her. This would have probably been before Tony Stark became Iron Man, or possibly soon afterward given that her first appearance in the Marvel movies is in Iron Man II. Although The Incredible Hulk was the second Marvel Cinematic Universe movie, he did not become an actual Avenger until the events of the 2012 Avengers film. The same with Thor, even though he was introduced earlier. So basically she's either the second or the third member of the team, before Thor, Hulk, and Captain America.

Do the powers that be in the realm of merchandise think that boys won't play with Black Widow toys or want Black Widow on their backpacks? Or do they think people will complain about the tightness of her clothes? I admit I was rather sexist back in the day, but that was in the early 1990s. From my observation of little kids these days, boys and girls seem much more willing to play together--and even if boys still disdain Barbies, they'd still love the Avengers. And social conservatism has been in decline, so I don't think there'd be as many complaints as there might have been in the 1990s or 1980s.

In any event, as female geek organizations like the Legion of Leia, Heroic Girls, etc. have pointed out, there're a lot of girls who'd love a Black Widow toy or Black Widow swag who aren't happy campers. See these two disappointed little munchkins here. Furthermore, Mark Ruffalo (you know, the Hulk) agrees.

So yeah, SJWs need to lay off Joss Whedon himself, but it looks like whoever's in charge of marketing needs a bit of a kick in the pants. Lack of action-girl/geek girl role models for little girls who haven't drunk the princess Kool-Aid strikes me as a much bigger problem than whether or not the Black Widow mourns the fertility the Communists (or, given that she's depicted as a teen in the Red Room and Winter Soldier states she was born in 1984, the Putinists?) stole from her. Here's a petition you can sign to help let Marvel know they need to do better. Lest anybody disdain signing petitions, Change.org has racked up some big successes over the years. And Marvel is already listening.