Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Guest Post: "Bring Out The Dead" Accepted by J. Ellington Ashton Press

Alex Shalenko is a former member of my alternate-history forum who has been very helpful with my writing career. He's got some very good news to share with you all...

Imagine this: you are fifteen years old. You are an awkward, bookish kid with a wardrobe straight out of some bad sitcom, more Star Trek posters than friends, and social skills to match. Now, imagine that you have a crush on a cute girl who, as conventional wisdom would have it, is more likely to date a football player, or perhaps that one guy in a band, or the proverbial cool kid who smokes cigarettes and has a fake ID to buy beer. Imagine that you ask the girl on a date, fully anticipating humiliating rejection or ridicule.

Imagine that she says yes.

Are you still with me? Good. Because this is what having a publishing contract feels like. And it is a great, wonderful feeling, accentuated by sprinkles of trepidation and anxiety. What will happen next? How much will the editing process alter the book? Will readers and reviewers like it? Will it sell?

At the very least, it will not be too long before those questions are answered.

I have to thank a fellow author and good friend Bruno Lombardi (whose excellent works I would heartily recommend) for pointing me in the direction of J. Ellington Ashton Press. One submission later found me looking at the e-mail containing a publishing contract, not quite believing my own eyes and excited beyond all measure, for now the story that began as a birthday present for my wife will finally see the light of day.

My path to the holy grail of aspiring authors took eight years from the time when I finished my first novel, or four years from the time I finished Bring Out the Dead. This was not the fastest journey, but if anything, it proved the value of perseverance, and, more than anything, the value of support from friends and family, without which little would have happened. Also, it does not hurt to know a thing or two about the topic you are writing about.

After all, being a Russian-speaking author with professional background in the financial industry turned out to be a major asset in writing Bring Out the Dead. Being married to a lifelong reader of horror fiction (whose birthday was coming up) turned out to be another. A chance posting of photographs from the toxic wasteland of Norilsk, Russia, made it all come together. From there, the novel pretty much wrote itself.

Just like real-life Norilsk, the fictional town of Severozavodsk has a dark history strewn with forced prisoner labor, blatant disregard for environment, and good old-fashioned greed. As with many places in the far corners of the world, it came with its own mythology, both from the hushed cautionary tales of the Soviet era, and from the native Nenets people who lived in the far north long before the march of civilization. It came with blizzards which could cut off a sizable city for weeks at a time, frozen earth that yields precious little of its bounty, the eternal conflict of the rational against the superstitious, of industry versus magic that comes out of hiding in the light of the northern aurora. And it came with people – tough, fatalistic people who hide their fear of the dark under a callous exterior.

So, Bring Out the Dead is the story of all these things and then some. When Jake Levin, the novel's protagonist, finds himself in Russia, he learns not only about a different culture, but also about himself, and whether or not he can face the darkness, change it or be changed by it. What happens next? Well, you will have to read to find out!

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Blast from the Past Movie Review: Batman and Robin (1997)

The other night as part of Myopia: Defend Your Childhood, we watched Batman and Robin, a film remembered so poorly that we couldn't find anybody willing to defend it. Here's the individual podcast. Our exalted host Nick had to do it himself. In this gem, Batman and Robin must fight on multiple fronts--not only Mr. Freeze, but also new villains Poison Ivy and her henchman Bane. Complicating things is the arrival of Alfred's niece Barbara, who has secrets of her own...

The Good

*The opening scene where Batman and Robin take on Mr. Freeze and his hockey-themed gang in a museum is entertaining.

*When Uma Thurman is in her Poison Ivy persona, she's not too bad.

*They had some nice tie-ins with Batman Forever,including seeing Two-Face and the Riddler's gear in Arkham Asylum and Poison Ivy and Bane having to run off the raver gang Robin fought when he stole the Batmobile in order to claim a new hideout. Robin invokes his family's circus act the Flying Graysons in a squabble with Batman as well.

*Chris O'Donnell is less intolerable as Robin this time around. Given the length of time implied to have elapsed between this movie and Batman Forever, it makes some sense that the character wouldn't be a teenager anymore and having an adult actor wouldn't be as obnoxious.

*They kept Mr. Freeze's more complicated and sympathetic back-story from the comics. Even though Arnold Schwarzenegger wasn't the best actor in the film, the problem with the character was his constant punning, not the character himself.

The Bad

Where do I begin? The movie was so poorly received the major Batman film series that started with Batman in 1989 ended and had to be rebooted by Christopher Nolan with Batman Begins years later. Not only rebooted, but rebooted in a Darker and Edgier way that repudiated the campiness of the Burton-Schumacher era. It was a straight-up Franchise Killer.

*So many butt and crotch shots of Batman and Robin, plus the infamous Bat-nipples and six-packs on the two. Given how movies often objectify female characters turnabout's fair play (and some of Myopia's female crew appreciated the view), but the way it was done was so groaningly unsubtle it was annoying.

*Campiness in limited quantities is funny. Campiness in the amount ladled on this film is just bad. The museum battle scene at one point featured Batman and Robin deploying ice-skates from their boots so they can engage Mr. Freeze's hockey gang on the ice. And the puns. So many puns. So many bad puns! I love groaner puns, but in moderation. This went way, way too far. Whether this is director Joel Schumacher's fault or the executives' fault I don't know, but either way it was very bad.

*Plugging in Batgirl the way they did was stupid. She's not British even though she's supposed to be Alfred's niece and a student at a British school, she's explicitly the daughter of his sister and not a great-niece (which would make more sense given the massive age difference between her and Alfred), and her disappearance from a big chunk of the film (so the viewer can be surprised she's a covert street-racer and her eventually becoming Batgirl is foreshadowed) could have been handled better.

Although her reasoning for being there is creative at least--Alfred apparently used his salary from the Waynes' employ to support her after her parents died and she wants to repay him so he can retire--she has absolutely no reason to think his situation is that servile and she just comes off as really rude. Alicia Silverstone is dreadfully miscast--she's not British, she doesn't seem to be in the physical condition needed to do the stuff she does, and even though Barbara's reason for being there is absurd, a better actress could have made her feelings more convincing. Could Keira Knightley have been a better Batgirl? She might've been too young at the time to (not creepily) have the romantic tension with Robin, but still.

*Per the Knightfall saga, Bane is not only a very powerful warrior but also very, very smart. In this one, he's basically Poison Ivy's semi-retarded henchman. According to TVTropes this is the studio bosses' fault and not Schumacher's--Knightfall wasn't that long before and they wanted to work Bane in somehow, so they basically replaced an established Poison Ivy minion with him. Children, this is why Executive Meddling is quite often a bad thing. The only thing they got right is that Bane is Latin American background instead of being Middle Eastern like in The Dark Knight Rises. However, the Batman animated series (which depicted Bane as this glorified Mexican wrestler with an obvious accent) did that better.

*In her deranged-scientist mode (when she's not being Poison Ivy), Uma Thurman is obnoxious and not very good. She's generally a good actress, so maybe really bad direction?

*The way Batman and Robin fight with each other, with Robin apparently honest-to-God thinking Poison Ivy actually likes him, is freaking stupid. If Robin were depicted as a teen played by a teen actor it might've worked--but played by the 20-something Chris O'Donnell it's obnoxiously bad. And the where Batman shuts down Robin's motorcycle so he doesn't try to jump between buildings and Robin screams at him as he flies away is unintentionally funny. But not that funny because then I might have enjoyed it.

*Where's Dr. Meridian, Nicole Kidman's character from Batman Forever? The end implied she and Bruce were now a couple, and since she knows he's Batman that's not going to be the kind of problem it'd be for anyone who isn't Catwoman. However, unlike Vicki Vale, she's gone without a mention. Instead he's dating this random woman and apparently has been for some time.

The Verdict

Let this franchise-killer lie dead and forgotten. 4 out of 10.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

A Brief Discussion of "Myopia: Defend Your Childhood"

A man from Marietta has joined the ranks of podcasters with his new podcast Myopia: Defend Your Childhood.

"It's because I consume a lot of podcasts and I'm part of a group of people who watch a lot of movies," Nick said when asked where Myopia came from. "We talk about a lot of movies."

He credits his wife Candice and his friend Scott Miller with keeping him focused and helping develop the idea. He and Scott started developing the idea in the spring of 2014. They'd been hitting around the idea of a movie podcast and didn't know a formula, although The Flop House and How Did This Get Made? inspired him, as did We Hate Movies. However, he wasn't sure how he'd put his own spin on the topic. Then he listened to Pop Culture Happy Hour, in particular their discussion of myopias. This they defined as something one is so familiar with that one is short-sighted. That's what made the idea for Myopia work and what makes it different from other movie podcasts. Rather than watch new movies like a review show or watch bad movies on purpose, instead Nick and his merry band will challenge blind spots people have.

With Scott's help, Nick devised a formula. A select group of participants--full disclosure, I'm one of them--would use a survey to list movies from their childhoods that they wanted to see how they held up. When a movie was selected, the person who suggested the movie must defend it before the group watches it. The movie must be at least ten years old and the defendant can't have seen it in at least five years.

The first episode, recorded in late June, covered the 1990 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

"We were thinking to capitalize on the assumption that the Michael Bay Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles would be a trainwreck," he said. "Frankly it looks like we were right."

The podcast has attracted a following already--as of last count, 976 unique downloads, with the feed being checked over 6,000 times. Since Podbean bases its count on devices, this means nobody is gaming the system by downloading it multiple times. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles has been downloaded over 200 times. Nine episodes are available online, with new episodes premiering every Wednesday. A rough schedule has been established that will take the podcast through early spring. October, for example, is slated to feature scary movies, while November will be devoted to film series like Batman and December will be Christmas movies.

Nick's favorite movie to discuss was Hook, chosen in honor of the late Robin Williams. He was particularly impressed with the Hook discussion because it got into film study. He and regular participant Daniel both studied film in college, so they both prize deep discussion.

"It was satisfying to rewatch Space Jam and Hook and the Mighty Ducks movies because they were my favorites as a kid," he said.

He said it's important to do what one enjoys. Due to his busy work schedule, he can't always record regularly, so he sometimes records three movies in a weekend.

"If it becomes a job, it's no longer worth doing," he said.

One must also be comfortable with the sound of one's own voice, since one will be hearing it a lot.

Participation in the podcast keeps growing. Every time he talks about it, more people like to talk about it. The first episode only featured three participants, but now an average movie night features 8-12 participants. His favorite part is that people come to watch him and the other participants discuss the films. The early movies discussed were films he'd seen before, but with so many new participants, people are suggesting movies he's never seen before.

"It's giving me an excuse to see movies I should have seen years ago," he said. "Or perhaps that should never have existed."

Case in mind: The 1997 film Spawn,which was so bad that Daniel devoted an entire blog post to calling it the worst move he'd ever seen, even worse than Scooby-Doo.

Nick's future plans include his family. One episode that has already been recorded features him and his brothers discussing A Goofy Movie and a planned episode will feature The Muppet Christmas Carol. A special Mother's Day episode will feature his mother discussing The Breakfast Club.Meanwhile, Candice and her mother will have their own Mother's Day feature--Airplane!

Monday, September 22, 2014

Blast from the Past Movie Review: Batman Forever (1995)

Yesterday some friends and I gathered for our weekly recording of Myopia: Defend Your Childhood. That afternoon, we watched and discussed Batman Forever, in which the Caped Crusader faces established foe Two-Face and new villain Riddler while acquiring a "ward," the angry young Dick Grayson. Here's the individual podcast. And now for the review...

The Good

*The first half of the movie is really entertaining. It starts out with a bang--Two-Face is robbing a bank (or some other institution that has a vault full of money) atop a high-rise in order to lure Batman to fight him. Things get more and more insane once Batman arrives, including a trap full of boiling acid and nothing less than the Statue of Liberty. It's really well-done.

*Although this will horrify some of my fellow reviewers, I thought a lot of the pithy lines were hilarious. The "chicks love the car" line when Batman is fending off the amorous attentions of Dr. Chase Meridian (more on her later) is one of the most amusing lines in the film. So's "the bat-signal is not a beeper." And then there's Alfred's bit about "the OTHER car" and how what's really the secret entrance to the Batcave is where Bruce keeps his dead wives.

*There are some good establishing character moments for Bruce Wayne himself--on the news we hear that he's announced a profit-sharing plan for workers in Wayne Enterprises and we later see him insisting that the family of an employee who (apparently) committed suicide receive full benefits even though that's against company policy for suicides. And when the Riddler, now the powerful executive of the NygmaTech corporation, tries to crassly triumph over him at a gala, Bruce good-sportedly congratulates him on his success, revealing that for all his success and grandiosity the Riddler is nothing more than a petty jerk. Val Kilmer does a good job playing the character and apparently he was creator Bob Kane's favorite Batman.

*Jim Carrey's performance as the Riddler is brilliant. He's hilarious and his line delivery is great, plus he can do the creepy aspects (he has a The Cable Guy-esque fixation on Bruce, his former employer) and the arrogance (he demands an answer from Bruce, the owner of the company where he works, NOW rather than sending his designs to Bruce's secretary) very well. The latter is actually somewhat painful to watch--here's a man who had the ear of one of the most powerful men in Gotham and threw it away because he was a demanding entitled jerk.

*Tommy Lee Jones is having a lot of fun as Two-Face and he's fun to watch.

*Although it's different from his comic-book origins, I liked seeing the birth of Robin and how it was tied into both Two-Face and Batman. Even though the rest of the Grayson family doesn't get much screentime, I did like their characterization. Rather than cower before Two-Face and his thugs, they hijack the bomb he's using to hold the circus hostage and use their acrobatic skills to maneuver it out of the tent and into the river, at a terrible cost to themselves. It's very well-done.

*To that end, the deaths of Robin's family at Two-Face's hands causing Bruce to have a lot of flashbacks to the deaths of his parents and how he developed his fixation with bats and his attempt to keep Robin from becoming what he's become (the early Batman depicted in the prior two films is a killer) makes a lot of sense.

The Bad

*The second half of the film suffers from a major case of the slows. Things pick up toward the end after Two-Face and the Riddler deduce Batman's true identity and attack Wayne Manor, but there's a long stretch of boredom.

*Chris O'Donnell is grossly miscast as Dick Grayson. I don't think he's a bad actor, but he is way, way too old for the part. There's no reason for Commissioner Gordon to leave him with Batman as his ward when he looks like he's 25. I'm not familiar enough with the lore to know just how old Dick Grayson was when he became Robin, but he would have probably been in his earlier teens. Yet we meet him riding a motorcycle to Wayne Manor and Bruce discusses him catching up with the circus (now "halfway to Metropolis") as though that was a serious option. He acts like an older teen or twenty-something much of the time, except for one scene where he basically flips out on Batman in what comes off as a temper tantrum.

(And his "kung-fu laundry folding" routine is just ridiculous to watch. Although I imagine its purpose was to show that he was capable of fighting before he rescued that girl from the gang of ravers, this could have been exposited some other way. Perhaps Bruce catches him beating on a punching bag or something.)

*Two-Face, though quite entertaining to watch, is completely out of sync with his comic book character. The DC character who commits violent crimes while laughing maniacally and acting hyper is the Joker, not Two-Face. Two-Face is a grim, violent nihilist with a split personality. I've only read a few Batman comics, but the impression I've got is that Two-Face's depiction in The Dark Knight is much more in sync with his comic-book character (and the character I vaguely remember from the animated series I watched as a kid).

*During the scene where Two-Face takes the circus hostage, Bruce Wayne proceeds to beat the hell out of a bunch of Two-Face's minions while trying to get to Two-Face. Note that I said "Bruce Wayne," not "Batman." The fact that billionaire Bruce Wayne got into a fistfight with a bunch of armed men and straight-up destroyed them is something that any media account of the event will include. That'd attract attention to Bruce that he doesn't really need. Granted, he was willing to reveal his identity as Batman to appease Two-Face earlier in the scene (but nobody heard him, not even his date or the annoying reporter who was hanging out with him) and there is a giant bomb that's about to go off, but at least some consequences would've been nice. Given how Commissioner Gordon brings Dick to Wayne Manor in the next scene, he could say something about how impressed he is with Bruce's fighting ability and Bruce could wave it off by saying he's been taking krav maga or something.

*Dr. Chase Meridian (Nicole Kidman) is a really annoying character. She has some kind of love triangle thing going with both Batman and Bruce Wayne, even though the former is explicitly not interested. She's useful in precisely three ways--her kickboxing comes in handy when she and Bruce hold a staircase in Wayne Manor against a group of Two-Face's minions, she does a nice callback to Batman Returns when she asks if Batman would be more interested in her if she wore vinyl and wielded a whip, and her idea to play on Two-Face's fixation with coin-flipping comes in handy at the climax. Otherwise all she really does is throw herself at Batman at any given opportunity. She does have a meaningful name, which I did appreciate.

*"Holey Rusted Metal Batman." Yes, I know they were trying to make an in-joke about Robin's exclamations from the earlier Batman material in a way that was true to the new character (he's actually making an observation), but this one was a groaner. And coming from me, that's a big deal. And some of the campy aspects of the film were ridiculous rather than funny--the security guard panicking over the "BOILING ACID" was hilarious rather than frightening.

*During Batman and Robin's invasion of the Riddler's lair, Robin has the chance to kill Two-Face. Despite challenging Bruce's warning that desire for revenge will consume him for most of the movie, he suddenly has a change of heart without any obvious conflict.

The Verdict

*It has its entertaining parts, but it's not that great of a film overall. If only it had been edited a bit more tightly. Six out of 10.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Blast from the Past Movie Review: Batman Returns (1992)

I wasn't able to attend the Myopia: Defend Your Childhood screening of Batman due to a church social event, so I made sure to participate in the podcast focusing on Batman Returns, which I wasn't allowed to see when it came out but whatever. In this one, Batman faces two new threats--a grotesque "penguin man" who emerges from the sewers to seek Gotham's highest office and a mysterious cat burglar wearing a lot of tight leather.

Here's the podcast. And here's the review...

The Good

*One of my fellow panelists described how Batman could have had an arc from the 1989 film through this movie to Batman Forever, but this got botched. However, I did some thinking and I think there's actually one there. In the first film, Batman kills the Joker and in this film Batman kills several members of the Penguin's gang. However, in Batman Forever, Batman tells Robin that if he kills Two-Face (who had killed his parents) that won't be the end of it. It's like he's warning Robin against going down the path he's walked already and managed to get off.

(The "Fridge Brilliance" TVTropes page, which I read after I came up with theory, suggests that his getting to know Catwoman and realizing not all criminals were faceless monsters might've been the cause for the change in behavior. Considering how the early Batman would kill and the later Batman would not, this means the movies were following the comic books).

*Another area where it shines is the acting and characterization of its villains. From the beginning the audience sympathizes with the Penguin, the victim of a comically Tim Burton-esque attempt at infanticide by his wealthy parents horrified at his deformed appearance and bizarre behavior (he did attack the family cat--by dragging it into the scarily cage-like playpen he was being kept in). He starts out wanting to find out who his parents were and reclaim his "birthright," although there are some hints that the evil plan of the climax is already stirring when we see him in the Gotham hall of records. Due to his lack of socialization (he was raised by penguins before being put in a freak show), he acts like a psychotic man-child much of the time, which can actually be pretty amusing (if vulgar).

Meanwhile, Catwoman starts out as an oppressed ditsy secretary whom her boss attempts to murder for knowing too much about his own evil scheme. Her acts of villainy--which are much less extreme than the Penguin's--are driven by a desire for personal empowerment vis-a-vis a world that has disdained her (and a boss who, before trying to kill her, was rather rude to her) rather than malice per se and she's rather conflicted about the whole thing rather than being remorselessly evil. Meanwhile, industrialist Max Shreck is greedy and amoral, but he's depicted (rather thinly) as a man who rose from nothing and wants to leave something for his son.

*The absence of Vicki Vale (Batman's love interest from the first film) is noted and explained.

The Bad

*Shreck is not a particularly good villain. He's trying to convince the Gotham city leadership to allow him to build a new power-plant (even though it's made repeatedly clear the city has plenty of power), a "power-plant" that actually drains and stores power from the city grid. When his secretary Selina Kyle discovers this he attempts to kill her (causing her to become Catwoman) and he sets up the boorish Penguin as his puppet candidate for mayor (causing most of the battles with Batman) to get rid of the mayor opposed to the plan. However, he's the most thinly-characterized of the villains and is a background figure most of the time. Furthermore, how does he plan to conceal this from the citizens? He's depicted as having committed other sins as well (owning "firetrap" slums, dumping toxic waste, and even having killed a prior business partner), but those are the sort of things that are relatively easy to conceal. Building a power-stealing fake power plant isn't. And trying to make a man who is for all intents and purposes a deformed vagrant your candidate for mayor? Really?

(Granted, the ridiculousness might be explained by this being a Tim Burton film...)

*The Penguin's scheming gets more and more ridiculous as the film goes on. He's for all intents and purposes a homeless man who has a gang of ex-circus performers as henchmen, but yet he commands a ridiculous amount of resources. If it was made clear he was diverting monies Shreck gave him for his mayoral campaign into, say, creating an army of trained penguins armed with rocket launchers, that would make more sense. I know the film isn't trying to be more realistic like the Nolan Batman films (in which the "supervillains" are terrorists and mobsters rather than, well, supervillains), but one wonders how he's actually doing this. Before this, he sends a circus train (similar to the trains you see carrying around little kids in malls) to kidnap the firstborn sons of Gotham's social elite to murder them--a train seen driving around the city without opposition or even notice.

*When Selina wrecks her apartment and begins her transformation into Catwoman, she assembles her new outfit out of a leather jacket. I don't think there's enough leather in that one jacket to make a full body suit. It would have been better if she was depicted as having several such jackets. She does seem to have a lot of clothes, so it wouldn't have been that hard.

*Batman's costume is really not that good. He can't turn his head and that affects his fighting style. At one point he tears his mask off and it looks like its made of pleather.

The Verdict

It's not boring, but it's really not that good. Six out of 10.

Guest Post: How Maliki Wrecked the Iraqi Army

Here's a little something from the member of my alternate-history forum whose handle is CalBear about how the ineptitude of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is responsible for the success of ISIS. Take it away, CB:

We have all witnessed the almost stunningly weak performance of the Iraqi Army in its on-going struggle against ISIL. The destruction of multiple brigade size Iraqi Army formation totaling over 20,000 troops by roughly 1,500 ISIL fighters was, for most Westerners, our introduction to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The sight of thousands of Iraqi troops abandoning all their equipment, including uniforms as well as weapons and armored vehicles to some black pajama clad guys in pick-up trucks was puzzling to the point of disbelief. How could this possibly have occurred?

There is no single answer to this most reasonable of questions. It is important to consider exactly how the Iraqi Army of 2014 can to be, and what could cause the sort of collapse seen not just in Mosul but in a series of engagements between the regular Iraqi Army and ISIL.

Iraq’s pre-2003 military was utter destroyed by Anglo-American formations during the ill-starred 2003 Iraq War. A force that had never really recovered from its utter defeat in 1991’s Desert Storm campaign, was dismantled by advancing U.S. and British Armored formations in a text book assault. In the aftermath every member of the Iraqi Army, from the newest recruit to the most senior commander, was essentially fired. Starting in 2004 the Coalition began to reconstitute the military, initially using private military contractors, and then under the instruction of NATO trainers (primarily U.S. Special Forces). Initially the training was designed to create a “counter-insurgency” force capable of assisting and eventually replacing UK & U.S. forces on the ground fighting the “Insurgents” (actually an al Qaeda led force primarily made up of non-Iraqi “foreign fighters”), with the training expanding into the creation of a professional national defense force as the AQ threat was effectively eliminated. By the end of the U.S. military presence in Iraq on December 31, 2011 the training had, by most accounts, been largely successful in creating a professional force that thought of itself as “Iraqi” not the Sunni/Shi’a division that is a constant background to all Iraq politics, and a divide that various groups had manipulated to their own goals during the post 2003 War’s chaos. The Iraqi Army was, it was hoped, going to be an example of cooperation and professionalism that would serve as a template for the rest of Iraqi society as it transitioned to full democracy. On January 1st, 2012, this looked very hopeful.

Clearly this hope was soon to be dashed. What happened? The short version is Nouri al-Maliki happened.

Effectively the hand-picked U.S. choice for prime minister of the new Iraqi Republic in 2006 thanks to what the U.S. concluded was a sufficient strong anti-Iran stance, he was re-elected in 2010 some nine months after elections of the new Parliament. al-Maliki began to dismantle the carefully constructed Iraqi professional officer corps, replacing senior officer who had been chosen based on merit and potential by U.S. trainers, with political allies. As he did so, the non-aligned Army began to fracture along sectarian and ethnic lines. Sunni/Shi’a and Arab/Kurd became more important than qualification for promotion. This in turn, led to the degradation of the junior officer corps, and perhaps most crucially to the effective collapse of the military’s supply system. Al-Maliki created three brigades with the specific job of protecting the regime (i.e. him) from possible overthrow. The forces received the best equipment and were kept in full supply. Much of the rest of the supplies needed to support the day-to-day operation of the combat forces was either stolen after purchase, or never actually obtained, with the cash diverted to personal accounts. Forces on the borders of Iraq, where the blow-back of the Syrian Civil War was already having impact, were left with insufficient equipment and often without any pay for weeks, even months. It was these forces that collapsed when ISIL struck.

Unpaid, hungry, poorly led at the most senior military levels, with battalion officers who were selected for political reliability more than command skills, these forces lacked what the military calls unit cohesion (and is usually referred to as morale). As each level of command fled the battle field, those below felt increasingly abandoned until a critical mass was reached where a rout was nearly inevitable. Despite suffering remarkably low casualties (estimated total combat KIA among Iraqi forces at Mosul total well under 200, out of a force exceeding 20,000) units found themselves unable to face the much more motivated and far better led ISIL units that were attacking them. What had been an Army Division sized force became a panicked mob that stampeded, abandoning everything in its wake. Lacking competent leadership (reports indicate that senior commanders fled either by helicopter or car even before combat began, with General officers telling Colonels, Colonels tell Captains and so on to flee before the advancing ISIL forces) once the rout began there was no stopping it. Mosul was lost, as was much of non Kurdish Northern Iraq, without any sort of serious effort by Iraqi troops to prevent it.

Today, thanks to the corruption, political meddling, and on-going string of defeats, the military built with such care by the U.S. is in utter disarray. American military advisers have reported that less than half of the combat units in the Iraqi Army can be trusted by U.S. troops due to infiltration by various sectarian groups, none of whom have the Iraqi nation best interest as a driving force. One can hope that being faced with the brutality of ISIL, these diverse groups will come together for the greater good, with a new sense of purpose and recently elected political leadership. Only time will tell.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Among other interesting facts you can learn about me are:

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

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

*My experiences with writing groups.

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

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

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


Sunday, September 14, 2014

ASOIAF AU Fan-Fic: So Soars The Young Falcon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Plot

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

The Good

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

The Bad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Verdict

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

Monday, September 8, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brutal Kroger parking lot attack caught on camera

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

Man shoots, kills suspect after attempted robbery

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

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

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

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

Why Sociopaths Make Poor (Fictional) Villains

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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