Friday, June 28, 2013

Avoid The Appearance of Evil: The Voting Rights Act and Preclearance

The other day, the Supreme Court struck down Article IV of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, claiming the formula used to determine what states with histories of discrimination and voter disenfranchisement was outdated. Some officials in Georgia I've worked with in my capacity as a journalist have complained that Georgia and other states should not be singled out for additional burdens due to the sins of our parents and grandparents and that is a complaint I can understand. I remember during my first journalism job, extra work being required to ensure the city's redistricting met federal requirements.

However, many translations of 1 Thessalonians 5:22 say to "avoid the appearance of evil." Although the context of the verse seems to indicate the "avoid every kind of evil" translation is the better one, the principle is still a prudent one. Soon after Article IV was struck down, Texas and other states immediately made efforts to change their electoral set-ups through redistricting, voting IDs, etc. And this article here describes ways that voter disenfranchisement can take place, often at the local level at the whims of a few officials rather than vast racist conspiracies.

Ergo, to avoid even the appearance of wrongdoing (and the shenanigans that I'm sure someone, somewhere is going to pull even thought the South today is not the same place it was 50 years ago), it would be a good idea to either:

1. Create a new pre-clearance formula using more up-to-date information. The New York Times article here has a bunch of suggestions for how to do it. Patrick Leahy has vowed immediate action, so hopefully he or his allies will have something soon.

2. Require universal pre-clearance in all jurisdictions so that it is not discriminatory against any particular state. Although the Constitution gives electoral responsibilities to the states, one could make a case using the 14th and 15th Amendments that this is necessary to prevent even the slightest possibility of disenfranchising voters. This would still leave the states running the elections, so it may not be a constitutional problem.

There's also an article I sent to one of my high-school friends some years back that used some kind of computerized process to draw voting-district boundaries. I can't find the link at the moment, but it would eliminate gerrymandering entirely while creating districts of equal population size.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Norse Balearic Islands? Norse Mediterranean Empire? AWESOME

Here's another timeline from my alternate-history message-board, After Palma: Vikings of the Balearics. Although the opening post does not specify a point of divergence, it seems that in 1110 AD, a Norwegian Crusading fleet is pushed back to Sicily by bad winds rather than continuing onto the Holy Land. There, spurred by a rise of Islamic piracy in the Western Mediterranean, the Norwegian King Sigurd attacks the Balearic Islands and parts of mainland Muslim Spain.

Goodies from this timeline include:

*Sigurd establishing himself as a power in mainland Italy after a dispute with the Pope.

*He bolsters his numbers by recruiting (converted) Muslim prisoners and seems both charismatic and terrifying enough to make it stick.

*Sigurd intervening in the politics of the Byzantine Empire and playing Emperor-maker. At one point he even absconds with most of the famous Varangian Guard.

*Ultimately Sigurd establishes an empire of multiple islands spanning the entire length of the Mediterranean and even imposes a protectorate on modern-day Tunisia.

Given Sigurd's complicated romantic/familial history (many children by different women, plus a step-nephew he is obligated to support politically), this Mediterranean Viking empire might not survive his death, but it'll certainly be interesting to watch.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

On Developing A Character Without Much Agency...

One of the criticisms the early drafts of my novel Battle for the Wastelands received is that the character Catalina Merrill, sister of rebel chief Alonzo Merrill and unwilling concubine of the villain Grendel, is a "stereotype." One of my early readers has described her as a princess in a tower awaiting someone to rescue her.

My immediate response was that she's not in a position to realistically do a whole lot. She's one of if not the youngest of a small number of concubines (Grendel's harem numbers in the single digits and is guarded by a couple trusted soldiers, while the notoriously intrigue-ridden Ottoman harem numbered in the hundreds and was policed by large numbers of eunuchs). This puts her (and other concubines as well) in a weak position for harem intrigue (especially when Grendel is around and can keep an eye on things), and due to her being essentially a political prisoner, she has the least personal freedom of the bunch. I viewed criticism of her lack of activity as akin to those people who complained about Sansa Stark not punching Joffrey "Baratheon" in the face or trying to escape King's Landing, where she's a hostage of the ruling Lannisters, in the A Song of Ice and Fire novels. All that would accomplish would be to get both of them killed (or at least punished severely) and given the history of victorious oppressors in our world, most people would rather live on their knees than die on their feet. The actress who plays Sansa in the TV show pointed out that if she "acted out" like Arya, she'd be dead. Although Catalina is too valuable to Grendel's schemes for him to easily kill, she doesn't know that, plus there are other things to fear besides death.

However, although that response works on the macro level, it does not work on the micro level. It's been a long time since I've read A Clash of Kings and A Storm of Swords where most of the "Sansa in King's Landing" story takes place, but I do remember the following:

*When the drunken Ser Dontos makes a fool of himself at a tournament, Joffrey orders him to be drowned in wine, but Sansa suggests he instead make Dontos a fool (jester) because this would be "crueler." Joffrey, a sociopathic sadist who isn't particularly smart, falls for this. Despite her weak position and regular torment by Joffrey and his lowlife bodyguards, she is able to manipulate him and save a man's life.

*When Stannis Baratheon lays siege to King's Landing, Sansa tells Joffrey that her brother Robb always leads his troops into battle in person. This provokes Joffrey to spend at least some time on the front lines of the besieged city rather than hiding in the Red Keep. I don't remember this part clearly, but I get the distinct impression this was Sansa's sly attempt to get Joffrey killed without putting herself at risk.

*Sansa does manage to warn Oleanna Tyrell, grandmother of Joffrey's intended Margarey Tyrell, that Joffrey is a sadistic monster. This leads to Oleanna, a political mastermind and the real ruler of House Tyrell, to conspire with Littlefinger to have Joffrey assassinated and Margarey married to Joffrey's kind-hearted but weak younger brother Tommen "Baratheon." Good riddance to bad rubbish.

And on a historical note, it's not like oppressed people sat around being passively miserable all the time. They had coping mechanisms like religion (Santeria in the Caribbean and what strikes me as an early form of Pentecostalism in America, the Bacchal cult in ancient Rome), art (there's a fascinating essay I read in high school discussing religious quilts made by black women as a form of creative expression as well as an act of religious devotion), pets (to use a more modern example, Jaycee Dugard and those women kidnapped in Cleveland had them), etc. And one can be free in one's own head, at the very least.

How does this affect Battle for the Wastelands? Well, in addition to some earlier edits making Catalina's weak position more obvious, I've also devised some ways to foreshadow some of my future plans for her in the way Martin seems to be foreshadowing Sansa becoming a political mastermind (Littlefinger spirits her away after Joffrey's death and makes her his apprentice in political intrigue). Over this past weekend, I've come up with some bits of internal monologue that would not only develop Catalina as a character, but also to foreshadow some things I have planned for her later. They don't require her to do stupid things or even amount to major changes in the novel, but they make for a much more developed character and set things up for later.

For my fellow writers, particularly those writing about time periods (or fictional worlds analogous to those time periods) where people were oppressed and had their activities restricted, hopefully this post will be useful to you.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Another Awesome Idea for "Star Trek: Into Darkness"

A member of the alternate-history website I have been a member of since high school who wishes to remain anonymous has seen Star Trek Into Darknessand posted his own "this is how it could have been done better" suggestions. His critiques are very similar to some of mine, like nobody apparently knowing who Khan is. I found them so impressive that I will post them here, since the idea is posted in a part of the forum that only members can access. Let me re-emphasize that this is not my idea:

I'll tell you what would have been cool.

It would have been cool if they actually treated the destruction of Vulcan as a 9/11 moment for the Federation, with Starfleet militarizing and scouring the galaxy for threats, and getting into pissing contests with the Klingons as a result.

It could be cool if they'd started the movie by confronting the Klingons instead of a volcano. That way we'd establish why the Klingons are such a threat that anyone would betray Starfleet over them. We could also establish that Starfleet has a debate much like the debate over the Iraq War - should they use the destruction of Vulcan as an excuse to take out every threat in sight, or should they focus their energies on the actual problem of strange phenomena in unexplored space.

It could have been cool if Section 31 sent the Enterprise on a secret mission to retrieve the Botany Bay in space, rather than having some stupid torpedo plot and taking a shuttle to a Klingon junkyard. That way Kirk, the audience, and everyone gets a proper introduction to who Khan is.

It could have been cool if we saw Khan and the Starfleet hard liners get together, and watch Khan utterly charm them. They think the Federation has become soft and hippie, and long for the good ol' days of the 21st century when people were willing to create elite supersoldiers to take out terrorists. Khan says he and his buddies represent those good ol' days. He says that since it's the 23rd century obviously me and my guys are just a bunch of totally non-threatening hicks amazed by the mighty Federation, but we can show you 21st century methods and you can use them much more wisely than the people of the 21st century could. You will be totally badass and nothing will go wrong.

It could have been cool if we'd seen Khan and the supersoldiers actually employed against the Klingons. As promised they are brutal but effective, and as expected they go rogue pretty fast.

It could have been cool if Khan's big plan was not petty revenge but to start a war between the Federation and the Klingons, simply because war is inherently good for supersoldiers and would-be dictators. He used to be a ruler and he wants to be one again. And if many in Starfleet were actually willing to side with him on that, because they really want to destroy all enemies.

It could have been cool if Kirk actually sided with the Klingons, against Starfleet, to take Khan out.

Think about it. The fundamental debate about the Klingons parallels one with the "war on terror" - should we fight only those who have attacked us, or should we fight everyone who doesn't like us and might pose a threat? Hardliners tend to argue that if someone doesn't like us, they're just a war waiting to happen, so might as well take them out at the first good opportunity.

The Star Trek philosophy, however, is clearly against the "destroy anyone who might be a threat" position. Kirk should realize that peace with the Klingons depends only on whether they can be trusted to honor a treaty, not whether they're nice people. The Klingons may be barbaric and violent, but they also have an extreme code of honor which Federation hard liners simply ignore. If they sign a treaty they will honor it.

It could have been really cool if Kirk working with the Klingons to stop Khan made them respect his personal honor enough to establish a peace treaty for an unexpectedly happy ending.

Very interesting idea. Also, the idea of Khan attempting to use the war with the Klingons to take over the entire Federation with the aid of Starfleet "hardliners" like Admiral Marcus is just the kind of awesome gambit that someone as dangerously clever and charismatic as Khan could credibly pull off.

And you could get into some really heartrending territory.

*Say Admiral Marcus's wife Carol's mother was killed on Vulcan or in San Francisco by Nero during the events of the first film. If Carol sides with Kirk and the Klingons against her own father because he has so totally crossed the line (seriously, trying to make a 21st Century war criminal into the military dictator of humanity and other races is BAD, even if it's in order to ensure nobody could ever pull something like the destruction of Vulcan ever again), that would a far more interesting conflict than what we got in the film.

*And then what if Christopher Pike, Kirk's surrogate father, ends up a dupe of Marcus or Khan? Then you could have the two of THEM in conflict with each other.

Friday, June 14, 2013

A Very, Very Bloody Accident: WWIII In 1983

Today on my message-board I decided to take a look at ABLE ARCHER 83: Timeline of a Third World War in 1983. In real history, the Able Archer military exercise frightened the Soviet leadership into thinking a Western attack was imminent, but nothing ended up happening. Here things get ugly--the Soviets launch a pre-emptive "bolt from the blue" assault on completely unsuspecting NATO forces.

It's really interesting, although it'd be unbelievably horrific to live through if you lived in West Germany and other areas being fought over.. Thus far it's staying conventional and the author is saying it won't end up like the British movie Threads (in which civilization is bombed to hell and gone and only reaches roughly Victorian levels again 20 years later). Some interesting bits:

*The Soviet Union, rather than keeping occupied territory under military government (the most sensible option in my opinion), sends the KGB in almost immediately and starts murdering political opponents, collectivizing economic assets, etc. This could have some interesting consequences--with most of Austria's political elite liquidated, someone suggested Austria might be more inclined to join a united Germany if and when the USSR and its allies are defeated.

*There are Soviet attacks on Alaska in the early days of the conflict and the U.S.S. Kitty Hawk is destroyed off Korea. U.S. forces in the North Pacific bounce back and the Soviet Pacific Fleet pretty much ceases to exist. Some more detail on actual Soviet attacks on the U.S. mainland would have been nice.

*There's also a lot of space-war going on, with Soviet killer-satellites attacking American ones and the U.S. shooting down a Soviet satellite with a modified ballistic missile. And space-mines.

*Given how strong the anti-nuclear/peace movement was in the early 1980s, there are a lot of protesters hanging around military bases when the attack does come. With hundreds of peace activists killed by chemical weapons intended to make airfields and tactical nuclear stockpiles unusable, that pretty much strangles the Western anti-war movement in its crib. Oops.

With the exception of a left-wing Italian member taking offense at Italy's relatively quick capitulation to the Soviets, the depiction of Soviet infiltration of the 1980s peace movement and the trade unions (something that in the former case happened to be true), and acting all incredulous South Africa's black neighbors would attack it (regardless of who attacked whom first, I still think that's possible), the thread hasn't really gotten contentious. The closest thing to an argument that's taken place involved a Finnish member who seems very knowledgeable about the Finnish Cold War military correcting the writer's mistakes in the area. The Austrian issue is touched on (someone claimed the terrain would make much of Austria difficult for the Soviet Union to occupy), but much more briefly.

The timeline is still going. Definitely worth keeping an eye on.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Japanese Biological Attack on Los Angeles, WWII

Here's another interesting alternate timeline, courtesy of

How Silent Fall The Cherry Blossoms

The gist of it is that the Japanese I-400 submarine aircraft carriers (I kid you not, they were real) are completed in 1944, with a possible point of divergence being an earthquake not happening and/or less interference from Allied bombers. Faced with the American military-industrial freight train heading for the Home Islands, one of the Japanese leaders orders a biological attack on Los Angeles to be launched from these submarines. Aircraft launched from these submarines unleash the evil fruits of the infamous Unit 731, bombs loaded with fleas infested with the plague. The idea is that if the U.S. civilian population is made to suffer enough, people would put pressure on the government to end the war. In real life, the Japanese used biological weapons in China, causing thousands of deaths from the plague. Although the U.S. medical infrastructure is more advanced and the U.S. is not under constant military attack, our own advanced transportation infrastructure will work against us. See below...

As of the most recent update, small-scale outbreaks are occurring in Los Angeles, St. Louis, and now it looks like New York City as well. The ancient "from the plague, oh Lord, deliver us" prayer has been revived in L.A. churches, dark but cool moment. Although the discussion in most of the thread consists of just how screwed Japan is going to be after their inevitable defeat (the U.S. could use poison gas tactically in the Pacific as well as using rice blight as a biological weapon in the Home Islands), one board member points out that the plague could cause the American war effort serious trouble. Think mass absenteeism at war plants due to fear of catching the plague, or outbreaks crippling units slated for deployment. Already medical units intended for the Pacific are being diverted to care for plague victims in Los Angeles. And now it's looking like the Germans are looking into using biological weapons themselves, possibly against the British due to their lack of anything that could reach the U.S. mainland.

It's very interesting so far and has the potential to go into some very dark places. Check it out.

Monday, June 10, 2013

On "Game of Thrones" and White Female Messiahs

I've been followed Saladin Ahmed on Twitter since I heard him make a presentation on the podcast Writing Excuses that helped me find the extremely helpful book series "Daily Life In..." This morning, I found some Tweets from him criticizing the most recent episode "Game of Thrones," in this case the ending featuring the Arab-looking inhabitants of Yunkai all but worshiping the light-skinned Danaerys Targaryen for freeing them from slavery.

Here's one tweet:

aaand the season ends with a bunch of grown-ass brown people calling a white teenager 'Mommy!' It's 2013. Cut that shit out, !

Here's another:

"You bring war and hissing monsters. You leave behind ruined cities. PLEASE LEAVE, CRAZY WHITE GIRL!" - what ppl would really say to Danerys

I am not so ignorant that I don't recognize how "save the brown people" was used by white countries to justify imperialism and aggression on both the macro scale (one defense of imperialism in Africa was fighting the slave trade) and on the micro scale (I remember a political cartoon from the antebellum era claiming slaves in America were better off than free blacks in Africa), but there is legitimate historical precedent for what Game of Thrones depicts however paternalistic it might seem.

This account of the occupation of Richmond at the tail end of the American Civil War depicts the freed slaves greeting Abraham Lincoln with all kinds of physically affectionate, almost worshipful gestures. They touch him, they kiss his clothes, etc. Is anybody going to call REALITY racist for depicting black slaves hero-worshiping a white man who has freed them?

To be fair, this isn't as over-the-top as what was depicted in the show (see the YouTube clip later), but at the same time, Confederate slavery is not as over-the-top monstrous as slavery in Essos. The slavers of Meereen crucify 163 slaves to thumb their nose at Danaerys, while the way the Unsullied slave-soldiers are created is absolutely murderous and vile. Confederate slavery featured the rape of slave women by masters (why do you suppose African-Americans are generally lighter-skinned than Africans?), but the city of Yunkai specializes in the training and sale of sex slaves. A whole city doing this kind of thing on an industrial scale. Given how the cities of Slaver's Bay are so much more ridiculously evil than the Confederate slavers, the reaction of the people freed from their tyranny would in all likelihood be much more grateful.

And although foreign war is a useful way to rally the population around a dictatorial regime (the Falklands War in Argentina, for example), if a regime is sufficiently brutal and inept, the population may not simply fall for it. Allied forces were greeted as liberators from Mussolini by the people of Naples, for example. Although the Iraqi insurgency began soon after the fall of Saddam, that resulted in a large measure from inept U.S. occupation policies perceived as discrimination against Sunni Muslims, not just knee-jerk "the people dislike foreign invaders and prefer domestic tyrants to them no matter what." The Iraqi people were overjoyed when Saddam fell--they didn't throw themselves at U.S. troops en masse in defense of their regime because the U.S. brought war and frightening, destructive machines (analogous to "hissing monsters"). Obviously there were people who didn't like a long-term occupation of their country by foreigners, but that isn't the same as "we prefer our slavery to your scariness."

Having watched the snippet in question (I had a YouTube link posted, but the video is gone now), I think it's too long and a bit overdone, but considering how unbelievably atrocious Essos's slavery is and the whole "Mother of Dragons" thing, it's plausible.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Trailer For "Hands Off This Girl" (WARNING: DARK)

Here's the trailer for the webseries Hands Off This Girl produced by Kiss The Limit Productions. I've been interning for the company since February and I'm doing my bit by posting the trailer here.

Be ye warned. Hands Off This Girl is intended to raise awareness about the evils of sex trafficking. This is DARK (and could be a trigger for those who've experienced sexual abuse).

If after seeing this trailer you want to support the production of the webseries, here's the FracturedAtlas page you can donate at.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

May Writing Contest: The Results

Yesterday was the last day of May and thus the last day of the first month of the writing contest involving my friends Nick, Lauren, Sean, and I. The goal is to write the most fictional words, with the loser buying the winner lunch.

My word count, which I tracked per project per day on an Excel spreadsheet, was 19,154 words spread out across multiple projects. So here goes:

The Thing In The Woods-The word count went from 6,349 to 19,361. The first two chapters are completed, albeit rather short, and some great big hunks of other chapters are written. My plan now is to finish the entire first draft before I start graduate school in late August. It's young adult, so it'll probably be shorter anyway. I'm guessing it's around a third done, 40 percent on the outside. One of the biggest additions is that I've now got a romantic subplot involving the male lead, a rather snobby Buckhead transplant to a small town south of Atlanta that's rapidly turning into a bedroom community, and a local girl who's into theater. Given how my friend James R. Tuck said the big difference between young adult and adult fiction featuring teen protagonists is whether or not they're facing "grown man problems," high-school dating shenanigans will make it "younger."

(Yes, Battle for The Wastelands has a teen romance tidbit too, but it's not nearly as important. What to do about the flirtatious cowgirl Alyssa Carson takes up much less screentime so to speak than the Flesh-Eater threat to the protagonist's hometown, the starvation threat to the Merrill refugee camps, etc.)

The Cybele Incident-I went from 15,817 words to 20,215 words. This is net word count, since I ran the completed chapters through my Kennesaw writing group and they had ideas on what to cut as well as what to add. I wrote a new beginning to make the male lead Lt. Commander Thomas Briggs more sympathetic and more competent and added a new wrinkle to female lead Captain Adhirai Lakhani's battle plan to make her more sneaky-subtle as opposed to simply brutal and "when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail." She's genetically-engineered to be the next stage in human evolution, so having her act like an unsubtle moron kind of makes the people behind it look inept and stupid. I'm shooting for a shorter word count than Battle for The Wastelands, so I'm probably around a third finished.

The Wastelands Universe-I started writing the manuscript for the third novel in the series just so I could write down a 1,000-odd word sequence in the harem-intrigue subplot that came to me in a burst of inspiration. The second and third novels in the series give the female characters a lot more screentime, in particular the women of the villain Grendel's harem. I also started writing a sequel novella centered around Grendel's daughter Astrid, which would take place chronologically after the fourth, fifth, or possibly the sixth books. Finally, yesterday at the gym I had another burst of inspiration and wrote a 700-odd word scene that elaborates on Alyssa's character a fair bit.

I haven't gotten specific word counts from the others yet, although I'm certain I've beaten at least one of them. This coming month will be a lot tougher, since one will have more free time and the other will be more organized in tracking their word counts. Best not slack off. There are whole stretches of May where I didn't get any fiction writing done at all (15 out of 31 days, nearly half of the month). It'd be easy to blame my paying writing gigs, which have to take priority over my personal writing, but I could have still gotten some stuff done. At the very least, I could have broken 20,000 or even 25,000 words.