Monday, March 31, 2014

Redividing Eastern Europe, Or My Crimea Post...

According to the latest news, Russian forces are pulling back from the Ukrainian border. It looks like this particular crisis might be winding down. That being said, diplomatic negotiations are still ongoing and the troops might not be withdrawing all that many or all that much.

Here's an idea I had that might permanently deal with Ukraine (and Eastern Europe) as a flashpoint between Russia and the West. A grand bargain, if you will:

*Allow Russian annexation of Crimea, southern and eastern Ukraine, and Transnistria. Those areas are Russian-speaking and (generally) fonder of Russia than their Ukrainian kindred further west.

*Immediately allow western Ukraine (henceforth to be called Ukraine) into NATO and the European Union. The same with Moldova, with or without annexing Moldova into NATO/EU member Romania.

*Not sure what to do about Belarus. It seems to be a puppet of Russia anyway so if Putin leaves it be or decides to bring law into alignment with fact and annex it too, oh well. It's not a NATO country.

I imagine a lot of people will scream that this is appeasement, but Europe--whose primary problem this is--seems rather ambivalent about the Crimean situation rather than freaking out about the Russian armies being on the march. Furthermore, the US is poorly-placed to intervene.

As long as NATO exists and stands strong in defense of its member states, a cold-blooded calculating crocodile like Putin is not going to do anything too obvious. Though Russia is a powerful state, it is vastly weaker economically than the U.S., let alone the combined West. Russia is dependent on selling oil and gas to sustain its power, which is not a good thing in the long run even if it does give them leverage with the European countries that buy its gas.

Look at the Cold War. The USSR stomped on states in its own sphere, but despite its vast military power extending much further west than today, NATO kept Western Europe safe. The West is even stronger vis-a-vis Russia today than it was during the days of the Cold War. This formalizing of the spheres of influence of "the West" and Russia in Eastern Europe will give everybody something they want, let Putin save face, and eliminate the East-West tug-of-war over individual countries as a potential cause for instability and even war.

So let the Russians have some of their old sphere. Let them think they're standing strong against the homosexual drug-dealing fascists or whatever of the decadent West. My proposal, if implemented, leaves Russia "reigning in hell" so to speak, in the long run doomed to stagnation apart from Europe proper and contained by the NATO alliance without any non-NATO countries (in Europe at least) to easily bully.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

News Article Round-Up...

It's been awhile since I've done a "new article round-up" blog post, but given how little blogging I've done this month, this is a quick and easy way to get new content up.

California Farmers Short of Labor, and Patience

The gist of this one is that California farmers are short of workers due to prior immigrants getting too old to do the heavy work, native-born Americans not wanting the jobs, and increased border security keeping out new illegal/undocumented immigrants who ordinarily do this kind of work. It's getting to the point that these fiscally-conservative sorts are considering voting Democratic due to the Republicans lack of interest in immigration reform.

Now, one could say that these farmers should increase their wages and that'll attract native-born workers, but many farmers, especially the smaller ones, won't be able to afford that and will go out of business. This would lead to a further concentration of agribusiness that might not be desirable.

A solution to this particular problem might be a revival of the old bracero program, which ran from the 1940s until the 1960s. Obviously the old program had some issues, but the point of studying history is that we learn from it.

This'll horrify some of my fellow conservatives, but I've given some thought about how an overly-strict concern about illegal immigration has actually infringed on the rights of the native-born. There's no natural right to have cheap labor, but how I need to produce documents in order to have a (non-contractor) job is annoying. "Your papers, please" is something one generally associates with Communist countries. And lest anyone think this is something that's been in place too longer to change, the I-9 form and what-not have only been requirements since the 1980s. That's after I was born.

Heck, if I wanted to be really radical, I'd start advocating open borders. After all, before WWI, international travel without a passport was pretty easy and passports were viewed by many as an unpleasant government imposition. Of course, in an age of international terrorism, that'd be pretty reckless, but on the other hand, the 19th Century had in the Anarchist movement its own version of al-Qaeda.

25 Drug Companies Agree to Limit Antibiotic Use on Farms

This is excellent news. Although people in the medical field complain about patients demanding antibiotics for viral infections and the like, if anything's contributing to a coming antibiotic-resistant super-plague, it's going to be stuff like this. The SCALE is just so much larger than stupid patients. I've got a doctor friend who straight-up advocates banning antibiotic use in agriculture.

Voluntary steps are good first steps, but if this doesn't drastically reduce the reckless use of livestock, it might be time to get more regulatory. I'm generally a fan of less government regulation, but risking the end of the antibiotic era and a return to the time one could die from a scraped knee is a pretty scary thing. My great-grandfather and my infant great-aunt died of pneumonia that could've been treated by antibiotics, just to make it personal. And one of the big killers of childbirth is actually puerperal fever, not more immediate problems like bleeding. For Westerners, death in childbirth is typically something one reads about in books and that's something that shouldn't change.

What Makes the Muslim Ms. Marvel Awesome

Those of you who know me know that I'm a conservative, but on the issue of increasing minority representation in media, particularly the field of speculative fiction, I've lined up (some) with the obnoxious Internet Social Justice mob. I'm not going to act like portraying Muslims as terrorists on TV is worse than the existence of al-Qaeda, but let's be frank. If I were an Arab or a Muslim, I'd get sick of one of the the dominant media portrayals of my demographic being bomb-throwers pretty quick even if on an intellectual level I might recognize it as having a valid basis.

Besides, this makes good business sense. The United States is a lot less white and a lot less Christian than it was in the 1930s through the 1960s, when most of the major superheroes were created. If media creators ignore this growing market, they do so at their peril. I've made some money thanks to Arab fantasy writer Saladin Ahmed tweeting "The Beast of the Bosporus" to his thousands of followers, many of whom I imagine are Muslims/Arabs/Middle Easterners who'd like to see characters like them.

Furthermore, I've complained in the past about filmmakers' reluctance to have non-Western villains, with the rather Aryan "Mandarin" of Iron Man III and the British Khan Noonien Singh of Star Trek Into Darkness being particular targets of my ire. This isn't solely due to Hollywood PC-ism (although it's certainly there)--foreign markets are increasingly important and one doesn't want to offend audiences (or governments which will keep them from audiences--even democratic India banned Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom). It'd be easier to have historically non-Western villains like the Mandarin or Khan (or some kind of superpowered jihadist) if there are more non-Western characters on the side of good.

One suggestion I remember to avoid the political problems of an Asian Mandarin would be to have a particular character (who I think was a female employee of Stark Industries of Chinese background, but I can't find her online) filling in for that kid in Tennessee. If they'd made the Mandarin primarily Asia-based, Tony could travel over there to fight him and after a gratuitous beat-down, Stark Industries' Asian staff could help him get ready for the second round. There's also the Red Ronin, who could team up with Tony on an equal basis rather than just being a helper.

(Since it's been revealed there's a real Mandarin with a cult-like army out there who isn't pleased with being impersonated by a British crackhead, maybe we'll meet him someday. Since the Ten Rings is portrayed as being similar to al-Qaeda, I'm wondering if the Iraq-based Desert Sword superhero team can make an appearance. Perhaps in the Marvel Cinematic Universe they can be an Iraqi spinoff of SHIELD established after the fall of Saddam.)

Hmm...the Muslim Ms. Marvel's brother is depicted as a fundamentalist. Maybe he becomes some kind of super-jihadist and they fight each other in their superhero forms not knowing who the other is? That could get real tragic real fast.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Sparta, Athens, 300, and Problems

Sanjay's recent guest post on 300: Rise of an Empire pointed out how rather than give the Athenians their due, the movie pumped up the Spartans yet again got me thinking. I'm going to take a page from David Brin or, God forbid, the obnoxious Internet Social Justice mob, and point out how "problematic" that is.

Before I begin, I'll admit the Athenians had their flaws. They were sexist even by the pretty bad standards of ancient Greece and in that respect the Spartans were superior. Spartan women could own property, testify in courts, and walk around naked in public just like Spartan men could. Athenian women were basically confined to the house in a manner more akin to Saudi Arabia than anything one might imagine in Europe.

But there's a reason Spartan (ruling-class women) at least had so much more personal freedom, and it's a bad one. Spartan society was very hierarchical--the Spartan men who were such fierce warriors ruled over a vastly larger class of slaves (the helots, who were indigenous to the area and conquered by the Spartans long ago) and the "dwellers-about" (conquered people who weren't enslaved). To dominate them the Spartan men had to specialize in war and thus had to rely on their women to a much greater degree. Restricting talent by virtue of gender was a luxury they could not afford.

Although only around 20 percent of the Athenian population could participate in government, it was a lot more open in terms of social class. Its citizen body dwarfed that of any other Greek city-state. That's a lot better than having a tiny ruling class kept in power by pure terror, including a secret police force. The democratic traditions of the modern West (and those non-Western societies that have adopted them) are based on those of Athens. In contrast, the Nazis aspired to make themselves into a new Spartan class ruling over Russian slaves. General Sherman's comments on the Confederate cavalry--in particular how they were men who did not work but were highly-skilled at war--echoes this. Like the Spartans or feudal knights, they could only spend so much time learning the skills of war because they relied on a vast number of subordinate laborers for everything else. The apotheosis of the Spartan ideal is S.M. Stirling's Domination of the Draka--a ruling class sustained by the labor of slaves outnumbering them ten to one who casually rape enslaved women, impale rebels, and constantly plot war to destroy any alternative to their social system. In contrast, the apotheosis of the Athenian ideal is modern-day liberal democracy.

The original 300 glossed over this massive flaw in Sparta's political system, but since it was told from the perspective of a Spartan loyalist, that makes sense. Rise of an Empire, though it certainly gives the Athenians credit for the great victory at Marathon, depicts the Battle of Artemesium as an outright defeat of the "amateurs" derided by the Spartans in the first film. This is straight-up inaccurate, and not in the harmless way the uber-ab-toned Spartans or the bejeweled circus freak Xerxes are--it was a strategic withdrawal due to the Persians' defeat of the Greeks on land at Thermopylae. And even at Athens' great victory at Salamis, the Athenians are losing despite Persian admiral Artemisia's arrogant blundering until the Spartan fleet (which numbered less than 20 ships at Salamis) and ships from some other barely-named Greek cities show up.

As Sanjay pointed out, here's a chance for the citizen-soldiers to show their worth, but yet they're rescued from defeat by the Spartans whose real-life contribution was pretty poor. Not only is that historically inaccurate, but it has its ideological problems. Democratic states with citizen armies tend to do better than despotisms with warrior classes when all is said and done. Compare the Confederacy (dominated by what Marx called "an oligarchy of 300,000 slaveowners" with the pro-Confederate whites outnumbered slightly by the white unionists and black slaves) with the Union, especially after the early run of bad Union generals.

Guest Post: The Man From Singapore Reviews "300: Rise of an Empire"

Long ago, I posted some awesome short-short fiction written by a member of my alternate-history forum from Singapore who I met in person when I studied abroad in Britain in 2006. Well, he wrote an awesome review of 300: Rise of an Empireon Facebook today and he's given me permission to post it here.

So take it away Sanjay...

300: Rise of a Missed Opportunity (A Movie Review and a History Lesson)

I'm going to say this first- all in all, I liked 300: Rise of an Empire. Action scenes were actiony (though not as actiony as in 300), the non action bits were well done (unlike the boring meanwhile-in-Sparta subplot in 300) and Eva Green is awesome. Where did I think this film went wrong? In totally dumping the actual historical storyline, unlike 300.

"Now, wait just a cotton picking minute," a lot of you are going to say- "300 played fast and loose with history. It had weird orc-barbarian Persians, hoplites running around in leather underwear instead of massive bronze armour and a WAR RHINO." Metal as fuck, yes, but not exactly historical.

That's not what I mean when I talk about the historical storyline.

Lets look at the actual historical events leading up to Thermopylae:

Xerxes, King of Kings of Persia invades Greece, the Greek city states collectively go into conniptions. A number of them submit to the King of Kings. The two most notable among the holdouts are Athens and Sparta. Leonidas I of Sparta is elected to lead the Greek war effort. For various reasons, including the fact that it was the time of the Olympic Games (when Greek cities were technically not supposed to fight) and the Spartan festival of the Carneia the bulk of the Spartan forces could not be committed to direct action. They also consulted the Oracle at Delphi which prophesied that Sparta would either be destroyed or would sacrifice a king.

Modern scholars also indicate that there might also have been internal dissension in Sparta but that's besides the point. Leonidas leads a personal bodyguard of 300 Spartiates (a Spartiate was a Spartan male citizen who had passed the Spartan training programme) plus their attendants and auxiliary troops north, linking up with contingents from other Greek cities. He decides to make a stand at the Hot Gates. The allied Greek force holds off the Persians for four days before being outflanked. Leonidas orders most of the army to fall back and with the 300 Spartiates (plus their attendants and auxiliaries and a bunch of Thespians) makes a heroic last stand to buy time for the retreating army. Everyone dies gloriously.

Now 300 actually follows that story pretty much to a tee. It leaves out the fact that there weren't just 300 Spartiates holding the Hot Gates on the last day but frankly so do most sources. The 300 Spartans make for a much better story if they're holding back the might of the King of Kings all by themselves. And as for the portrayal of the Persians as snarling Orc-men with strange magic and elephants and a rhino (!) that the brave Spartans kick the collective asses of? Look at the framing narrative. We're being told this story on the eve of Plataea by Dilios (the one eyed guy who Leonidas ordered to tell their sotry). Leonidas specifically chooses Dilios because he has the gift of the gab. Dilios is essentially telling a massive tall story, stretching the details of what happened as a morale booster. He's also left out the consulting of the Oracle at Delphi but we can see from how he describes the Ephors that he doesn't much like religious figures- he probably couldn't be bothered to talk about a non-Spartan oracle. The flow of events pretty much conforms to the historical narrative- it's the details that are fudged and they're done so because Dilios wants to tell an awesome story. He's an unreliable narrator and we're subject to his prejudices.

What about 300: Rise of an Empire?

Note, first of all- no framing narrative from Dilios. Gorgo provides the framing narrative and she's a helluva lot more blunt. But as a side effect, we see the Persians as they actually are - normal human beings not strange grotesque monsters. Also, note we lose a lot of the stylised effects of 300 which makes sense since Gorgo isn't embellishing as much as Dilios would.

But let's look at the actual historical narrative leading up to Salamis.

While Leonidas is leading the Greek land forces to Thermopylae, Themistocles is in charge of the naval side of things. The allied Greek fleet is said to have consisted of 3-400 ships, over half of which were Athenian. Why did Athens have so many ships? In the decade after the Battle of Marathon (where the first Persian invasion of Greece under Darius, King of Kings had been defeated) a new seam of silver had been struck by Athenian miners. It was initially proposed that the silver be distributed equally among the citizens but Themistocles debated the matter and managed to secure the citizens vote to instead use it to finance the construction of over 100 warships. They initially voted to build a smaller number but when news arrived that Xerxes, King of Kings was planning a new invasion of Greece the Athenians consulted the Oracle at Delphi.

The Oracle said that: "Now your statues are standing and pouring sweat. They shiver with dread. The black blood drips from the highest rooftops. They have seen the necessity of evil. Get out, get out of my sanctum and drown your spirits in woe...a wall of wood alone shall be uncaptured, a boon to you and your children...Await not in quiet the coming of the horses, the marching feet, the armed host upon the land. Slip away. Turn your back. You will meet in battle anyway. O holy Salamis, you will be the death of many a woman's son between the seedtime and the harvest of the grain."

Themistocles successfully argued that "wooden walls" referred to ships, so even more ships were built. Thus, he led by far the largest naval contingent at Greece to Artemisium. Artemisium happened in parallel to Thermopylae and was an inconclusive stalemate (not the crushing defeat it's portrayed as in the film). Once news arrived that Leonidas was dead, the Hot Gates had been breached and the Allied army was falling back there was no point in carrying on the fight at Artemisium. Themistocles and his navy fell back towards Athens.

There was nothing between the army of the King of Kings and Athens so it was at this point that the Athenians put their cunning plan into action. They evacuated the city on Themistocles ships and were landed on the island of Salamis. Athens was burned but whereas the film portrays this as an unfortunate defeat it was in reality a hard strategic decision. The Persian navy, much larger than the Greeks, stormed into the straits of Salamis and were defeated in detail by the Greek ships. Queen Artemisia (who was a real historical character, in command of one naval contingent, not the entire Persian navy) did not die at Salamis but had the good tactical sense to fight clear of the battle and withdraw most of her force intact where other Persian naval commanders failed.

With his navy bloodied, Xerxes didn't have the logistical train to supply such a large force. He and much of his army went back to Asia Minor and the force he left behind was defeated the next year at Plataea.

OK. History lesson over. What's the narrative lesson? 300: Rise of an Empire twisted history, unlike 300, and ended up with a much weaker story.

Think about it- they had the opportunity to draw clear parallels and contrasts between Athens and Sparta. The Spartans seek a "beautiful death", they deride the other cities for fielding armies of "potters, sculptors, farmers" and Themistocles deliberately references this early on in the film. However, nothing ever comes of it. Artemisium sees the Athenian fleet overwhelmed by brute force, fleeing to Salamis while Athens is sacked, not as part of a cunning strategic plan but simply because. There's no evacuation, no sense of a brilliant strategic plan and Themistocles final plan is to charge the entire Persian fleet with five ships before the "Spartan navy" (historically, about 16 ships to Athens 180) comes charging in to save the day (again at the head of a bunch of other Greeks who are briefly glimpsed).

It throws away everything that could have been done with the Athenians. Think about the parallels- the Spartans in 300 go to see the Ephors and find themselves bound by corrupt pronouncements. The Athenians consult the Oracle of Delphi and cleverly Themistocles managed to turn the message of doom into the basis for a positive strategy. We don't get to see that in the film.

Artemisium had a bit of the cat and mouse games we should have seen more of (Themistocles luring the Persians into the fog etc) but that was the only part of the film where that wiliness, that cleverness we should expect from a romanticised portrayal of the Athenians really showed through. In the end the story we got really did show that the Athenians were amateurs- plucky, but amateurs, who needed the REAL BADASS SPARTANS to come and save the day for them.

When I watched the original 300 in a theatre here in Singapore, during the scene where the Arcadians reply- to Spartan derision- that they are "". Someone in the theatre quipped "Reservists" and everyone around him laughed because that's something every Singaporean man can identify with.

This was the movie where we could have seen the reservists kick ass using cunning and wit and stubbornness. The historical narrative was perfect for it.

But instead we got a decent action flick with a mediocre plot. Go see it- I liked it but it could have been so much better. 300: Rise of a Missed  Opportunity.

Friday, March 14, 2014

On "Problematic" Elements in a Fantasy World

On Twitter this morning, I came across the following Tweet by Avery Edison, re-tweeted by well-known author Dan Wells, whose John Cleaver books I am a fan of.

20 Feb 2013
I HAVE CREATED AN EPIC FANTASY WORLD WHERE DOGS CAN FLY AND GOLD CAN SPEAK and also women are subjugated sorry that's how it was then OKAY?

This isn't the first time I've seen that argument. A particularly vocal member of New Millennium Diverse Fantasy (a Facebook group I would join if it weren't for how aggravating some of its members are) insisted the manifold cruelties of A Song of Ice and Fire cannot be defended on the grounds of "realism" because this is a world where there are dragons (capable of nursing from lactating human women no less) and the Others.

The argument is superficially plausible, but emphasize "superficial." The pre-industrial societies most fantasy worlds are based on (including Martin's) for the most part sucked. For everybody (by modern standards even nobles were poor), but women in particular had it bad. A feudal economy and/or social structure is going to produce elements the Internet Social Justice crowd will call "problematic" by its very nature. Power corrupts and putting all the power in the hands of rich, strong young men is going to have bad consequences for women, the poor, etc. For all its vaunted power, the medieval Catholic Church tried and failed to restrain private war, violence against the Jews, forced marriage, etc., and this was an institution that supposedly had authority over said rich, strong young men's everlasting souls.

(If anything, this is a reason to call out fantasy worlds with princes, princesses, etc. for how they idealize a time that was very bad for almost everybody. George RR Martin's brutalities deconstruct these tropes--the handsome prince Joffrey Baratheon is a spoiled sadist, the pretty princess Sansa Stark is unbelievably naive and suffers for it, and rather than being a Perfectly Arranged Marriage, the union between King Robert Baratheon and Queen Cersei Lannister is unequal and abusive. And the violence the brutish Gregor Clegane and Amory Lorch inflict on the Riverlands is based on a specific military tactic from medieval warfare.)

J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings has been criticized by SF author David Brin due to how, despite its feudal-ish nature, the society is depicted as fairly benign. Perhaps the Stewards of Gondor keep a close eye on the nobles so they don't oppress the common people (in the vein of the Chinese emperors or certain Byzantine dynasties--and Tolkien himself compared Gondor to Byzantium, so that might actually work), but I don't remember this from the text. The Knights of Dol Amroth, in order to have the leisure time needed to become effective cavalry, almost certainly rely on the labor of a large number of peasants. Human nature being what it is, a more realistic portrayal of this type of society would see peasant unrest and complaints, especially in bad times. It's not like real history lacked for them in England or in France.

Now, this is not to say any story based on such a society HAS to be an atrocity pit. Even the pre-modern societies all of us can agree were cruel and restrictive (toward women and others) weren't nearly as restrictive as one might think. Misogynistic medieval Europe still produced personalities like Eleanor of Aquitaine and Joan of Arc. And in fact, fantasy elements can actually serve to undermine social injustice.

For example, the Wheel of Time series (which I admit I haven't read) depicts magic as something only women can use safely. Such women would have a much greater capacity to defend themselves against male violence, which would reduce the need for male protection and thus male control. Even oft-criticized Martin depicts the ruling Targaryen dynasty, whose members of either sex have a unique ability to bond with dragons and thus have an overpowering weapon in war, forbidding the conquered Westerosi nobles from claiming the right of First Night over peasant women.

So if you're going to base your fantasy world on a pre-industrial society, depict it with all its rough edges. If you're going to depict it being less unpleasant than it was, justify it. Although Avery Edison's flying dogs and talking gold wouldn't make faux medieval Europe a less misogynistic place, a woman with feminist inclinations and a fire-breathing dragon (and the ear of a man with similar assets) just might.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

How I Would Have Handled Artemisia in "300: Rise of an Empire" (SPOILERS)

If you've read my review of 300: Rise of an Empire, you'll see that one of my biggest areas of disappointment was the characterization of Eva Green's Artemisia, based on the historical female Persian admiral Artemisia I of Caria. She had the potential to be an awesome character, but the way they handled her not only weakened Xerxes (the primary villain of the first film) and made her too overblown, but also clashed a whole lot with the historical figure she's based on.

Obviously the "300" films are historical fantasy and thus expecting accuracy would be kind of ridiculous. However, in the first film the historical characters, though depicted fantastically, are still the same people. Though he goes into battle in a cape and leather Speedo rather than actual armor, Leonidas is still a king of Sparta raised in the Spartan traditions. And though Xerxes looks ridiculous, he's still the Persian king. And in "Rise of an Empire," Themistocles is still himself.

"300: Rise of an Empire" depicts Artemisia as bearing a deep grudge against Greece due to having her family murdered and herself spending years being raped by Greek sailors as a sex slave aboard a ship. Once the men have gotten bored with her, she's left bloodied and dying on the street, only to be adopted by the disrespectful Persian ambassador (last seen being kicked into a well by King Leonidas in the first film), who trained her to be a warrior.

The historical Artemisia was part of the royal family of a Persian vassal state in Asia Minor. The Persian Wars began with Greece invading Persian territory in support of rebellious Greeks and before they were forced back, the soldiers of Athens and Sparta did thoroughly trash one city. Have Artemisia's family killed in the city's defense and have her carried off as "war booty" (in both senses of the term) by the victorious Greeks, with the Persian ambassador from the first movie negotiating her return after the Greeks' victory at Marathon and serving as regent for her until she comes of age. Horrified by her mistreatment, the ambassador has her trained as a warrior for the remainder of her childhood (like in the film) to ensure she'll always be able to protect herself. She'll recover, marry, and have a son, only for her husband to die, possibly as a result of further shenanigans by the Greeks. When Xerxes invades Greece to avenge his father, Artemisia attaches herself to that and becomes a powerful adviser and commander. Her reduced role in Xerxes' decision to go to war not only makes for a more powerful and realistic Xerxes (who comes off in the film as kind of her puppet) but ties her in more firmly with her historical counterpart in the same vein as Leonidas and Themistocles. This revised back-story makes things a lot more "gray"--the Persians have defensible reasons for war with Greece rather than being a bunch of conquest-minded monsters.

Like real history (and in the actual film), Artemisia commands at Artemisium and Salamis. I'd depict her as being more competent than the film does--in the initial battles the Greeks inflict fairly one-sided spankings on the Persians, in at least one case due to the Persians being both arrogant and inept. The film could have the Themistocles/Artemisia quasi-romantic subplot, albeit not as poorly executed as in the film.

(Although their "hatesex" scene got a lot of praise in some of the reviews I've read, I thought it got ridiculous really fast. If Themistocles is a typically-sexist Athenian who gets roughly handled by Artemisia and is intrigued when she offers to parley, that would further emphasize one of the film's strong points--the humanization of the previously-monstrous Persians--and make Artemisia a "strong female character" in a less over-the-top way.)

However, Artemisia wouldn't be as stupidly arrogant and disrespectful of Xerxes as in the film and would survive to play the role she did historically--she advised Xerxes to pull out of Greece proper and leave the fighting to his general Mardonius, which would tie in with the Battle of Plataea seen at the end of "300." By all means keep her depiction as a leather clad angel ninja of death with stylized skeletal armor, but also depict her cleverness in escaping the disaster at Salamis rather than having her getting her entire command obliterated.

I can imagine I'm going to get criticism for depicting Artemisia as overly tied in with male characters (her late husband, the son for whom she was regent, Xerxes) rather than being as independent as in the film, but there are some good dramatic reasons for this on top of preserving at least some historical accuracy.

*Depicting her leaving her young son to go to war would have the same kind of pathos seeing men doing this that most war films have. Furthermore, given how a substantial percentage of American soldiers serving abroad in the War on Terror are female and have left children behind, this would echo that. It could also show Artemisia in a similar light to Leonidas' mother (seen early in "300" weeping as the child Leonidas is taken from her to be raised in the barracks).

*As I've said before, it gives Xerxes more agency while still leaving her a respectable amount.

*Depicting her having a normal life after being raped and only going to war due to political duty or vengeance for a more immediate wrong unrelated to the rape would drastically counter the "ruined forever" depiction of rape victims common in media. That has its own historical problems given how fixated many ancient (and not so ancient) cultures were on women being virgins before marriage, but it could be explained away that to due to her high social rank (her consort would co-rule a major city), her intelligence, or the sheer uniqueness of her being a female warrior, many men might overlook that.

*Artemisia would survive and retain a position of honor in the Persian Empire, which would further humanize the Persians--they're not cliches whose management style can be summed up in the TVTrope You Have Failed Me. Plus if they make a third movie, she can be present for that. :)

Movie Review: "300: Rise of an Empire" (2014)

Just got back from seeing the movie "300: Rise of an Empire." Here are my thoughts...

The Plot: Much like the original "300" was a fantasy version of the Battle of Thermopylae, this is a fantasy version of the Battle of Artimesium and the Battle of Salamis. The film also depicts the origin of the god-king Xerxes.

The Good

The original film suffered from something of a split personality--the fight scenes themselves were entertaining, but the stuff going on at home in Sparta was rather dull. "Rise of an Empire" was more even--although its best was never as good as the best of "300," its worst was never as bad as the worst of "300." It's never a boring film.

The film also provides more back-story for the original. In one of the more fun parts of the film, we see the Battle of Marathon and King Darius, Xerxes' father, as well as just what drives Xerxes to make war on Greece. Pursuant to that, I liked how the film humanized the Persians. The disrespectful Persian ambassador who Leonidas kicked down the well in the first movie also took pity on the young Artemisia, who was abandoned on the street near death after spending years as the pre-teen sex slave of some rather disgusting Greek sailors after her family was murdered. He trained her as a warrior and she rose high in Darius' esteem. But her grudge against Greece burned for years (given the horrors she'd experienced, that's not really a surprise) and this drives her actions throughout the plot.

(More on this later, as that was one of the film's weaknesses.)

Rather than being depicted as masked (so killing them isn't as upsetting) mooks, we also see Persian characters who have faces, names, and some bits of personality. Although those could have been developed a bit more, the fact they even put in the effort in the first place is a good thing.

And like the original, the battle scenes are fun to watch. Although some people have mocked the depiction of a horse and rider deployed in a sea battle, when that actually happens it's well-done and actually makes sense tactically.

The Bad

Obviously this is a historical fantasy so expecting Eva Green's Artemisia to hew too closely to reality would be a bit much, but the movie takes her way too far. They depict her as being the architect of Xerxes becoming a godlike being (minor spoiler--he doesn't start out looking like a bejeweled escapee from a bondage club), killing everybody who might advise the empowered Xerxes against a war of revenge against Greece, and basically being the mastermind of the entire situation.

Artemisia has gotten a lot of praise even from reviewers who otherwise didn't like the film, but this was overkill. I've written another blog on how Artemisia could have been handled better--you can have a powerful female character without making her that overblown. In real history she had a great deal of influence over Xerxes, but the filmmakers took that way too far. Making Artemisia that powerful made Xerxes seem weak--although an interview with one of the people involved in the film said Xerxes at his core is weak and insecure, there's having a tragic flaw and then there's just being hapless.

Also, Artemisia is supposed to be this terrifying warrior and commander but for the first part of the film she's distinctly underwhelming as an admiral. Historically Artemisia was one of the most impressive commanders at Salamis, to the point Xerxes remarked that his male commanders (who lost) were women, but his women were men. She actually comes off as rather incompetent at first.

Another area where the characterization wasn't strong was Queen Gorgo, Leonidas' widow. In the first movie, while Leonidas held the line at Thermopylae she tried to rouse Sparta's government to send reinforcements, even submitting sexually to the slimy, ambitious, and rather cruel Theron. When Theron shamed her and she killed him, revealing he was in the pay of the Persians, the Spartan assembly immediately demanded war. Yet in this film, she's depicted as being so broken up over the death of Leonidas that she refuses to support Themistocles' all-Greek war effort. Regardless of whether she would be able to even stop Spartan involvement after that, I really, really doubt the fierce woman depicted in the first film would even want to. And then she calls out Themistocles for supposedly wanting to put a sword in her son's hand--never mind that in the first film the sons of Sparta's ruling class were taken from their parents and basically raised in barracks and this is why they're such awesome warriors.

Finally, in terms of cinematography the film is dark. Not in terms of content or atmosphere, but it's just dark and hard to see things. The soundtrack is also overpoweringly loud in a few places.

The Verdict

Great concept, but it didn't live up to its full potential. It's a good movie to see--at the dollar theater. 5.5 out of 10.

Friday, March 7, 2014

For Want of a Nail: Another ASOIAF Fan-Fic

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

This rhyme has been repeated for centuries as a lesson in the possible consequences of even the slightest bit of carelessness. And the writer on whose handle is TheScottishMongol has applied to the world of A Song of Ice and Fire with a fan-fic of the same name

Basically Catelyn Stark's horse loses a shoe on her way back to Winterfell from her visit to King's Landing and the resulting delay means she never encounters Tyrion Lannister at the inn. She never arrests him on suspicion of his involvement with the near-death of her son Bran and he makes his way to King's Landing, where he meets the new Hand of the King Ned Stark and discovers that Littlefinger has slyly accused him of involvement in the attack on Bran.

Now a man who's a great warrior but has little political savvy and a small man who casts a very large shadow are thrown together and some very interesting things result. These include a wonderful Crowning Moment of Awesome that I'll sum up in a few words--"Trial of Seven." Although the story misses some steps, it's a lot of fun and certainly worth a read.

If you liked this story, the second one is posted here.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

February Writing Contest Results

So the word counts are in and my word count for this month's writing contests with my friends Emily and Robert is 5,488. I've beaten Robert, but Emily beat me.

The single largest thing I've written is a synopsis for The Thing in the Woods. Although it was a request from some writing group members to make it easier for them to critique the whole manuscript, a novel submission typically requires the submission of a synopsis of the whole book and sample chapters. I'd have to do it anyway, so might as well do it now. 1,920 words.

As far as The Thing in the Woods itself is concerned, I've written 507 words. The majority of it is a new scene from Amber's POV taking place during the final confrontation in the cult sanctuary. It's now 47,897 words now, so I can say in cover letters it's 48,000 words. 12,000 more to go until it reaches the minimum length for physical publication in some of these small presses I've been looking at. I've got a few ideas on how to make it longer, but I don't know if they'll be enough to get it that long.

For The Atlanta Incursion (the sequel to The Thing in the Woods), 586 words. Mostly character stuff and not a whole lot of it.

For the two Andrew Patel stories I need to complete my planned four-story e-collection, a combined 1,383 words. Mostly setting up the main conflicts in both stories.

After reading Killing for Coal for a graduate class at Georgia State, I added 335 words to Battle for the Wastelands before I submitted it to the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. The steampunk I'm familiar with doesn't really touch on issues of labor and class to any great degree and that was a very big deal in the "steampunk era" (post American Civil War to the beginning of WWI basically). Most of Battle takes place in a very rural area where there wouldn't be issues of strikes, unrest, etc., so it's just a matter of throwing in more references to coal-powered machines, more pollution in mining areas, etc. But later in the series, things are going to get a lot different.

The rest is just some odds and ends, including 600-ish words written for the collection my friend James is helping me with.