Monday, May 30, 2016

What If Stalin Had Survived His Stroke?

My self-ban from the alternate-history forum won't expire until the end of this week and I might re-ban so I can avoid unnecessary distractions from finishing and submitting Little People, Big Guns over the summer. However, I can still read the forums and I found something else you guys might appreciate...

Twilight of the Red Tsar

There's a book called Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar that compares the Communist absolute ruler of the Soviet Union with the Russian monarchs of old and I'm guessing that's where the user whose handle is Napoleon IV derived the title. The gist of it is that Stalin survived the stroke that killed him in our history.

That's not a good thing because he was apparently planning another Great Purge, this one with a particularly anti-Semitic focus. Given Russia's history with Jew-hating, there's the possibility of a second Holocaust within a decade of the first one.

Highlights of this timeline include the use of nuclear weapons, poison gas, and weaponized germs, rifts within the Communist movement (that usually followed Moscow's line), a Chinese messianic movement in the vein of peasant millenarian revolts that occurred in the dynastic past, and Richard Nixon. And there are a lot of allusions to the Book of Revelation in the chapter titles.


Sunday, May 22, 2016

This Google Chrome App Blocks Trolls AND Their Followers

Internet harassment is a growing problem, especially for women. Unfortunately, it is often very difficult to deal with these characters legally owing to jurisdictional issues, lack of technical knowledge by law enforcement, etc. Since there are few consequences for death threats, rape threats, and general ugliness, people are more and more inclined to do it.

The antics of the #GamerGate mob are the most well-known (and seem to be the most prevalent), but there are also the so-called "Social Justice Warriors" and, more recently, vicious Trump supporters. For all the good social media does, it has allowed for a lot more ugly behavior too.

Well, thanks to Celeste Ng (who posted the original Tweet) and Daniel Abraham (who retweeted it), I learned about this Google Chrome app that can block both abusive troll-types AND their dog-piling followers. It's called Twitter Block Chain. If an Internet hate mob is coming after you, this will lock them out and you won't have to deal with their crap.

So if Internet pests are so taxing that you're tempted to stop speaking your mind, here's a chance to get rid of them. Although it won't protect against some forms of attack (like doxing), it keeps the verbal abuse and threats away.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

A History Podcast You Might Enjoy...

My friend Tom strongly recommended I listen to podcasts to make my lengthy work commute tolerable. I'd only listened to a few podcasts before, but given how listening to writing-related podcasts when I'm half-asleep in the morning is rather wasteful (I risked not remembering useful advice), I soon found comedy podcasts like Myopia: Defend Your Childhood were the ticket.

My friends Jon and Nick recommended a history podcast called The Dollop, in which comedians Dave Anthony and Gareth Reynolds discuss American history. I started listening and soon I was hooked. The very best episode I've listened to so far is entitled "Disco Demolition Night" and describes this incident in Chicago in the late 1970s. It is absolutely, positively hilarious. Of particular interest is Steve Dahl, a radio DJ and current podcaster who organized the event and was willing to make parody songs about darn near anything, including serial killer John Wayne Gacy.

Another episode of interest is "The Jones County Deserters," who focuses on a group of white men from a largely anti-slavery county in Mississippi who deserted the Confederate army and became a band of Unionist guerrillas. This band was the topic of the book The Free State of Jones, whose movie adaptation comes out this summer. The episode "Oil Boomtowns of Texas" is full of useful information I might apply to later installments of my Wastelands novel series. I also liked the "Battle of Brisbane" podcast Anthony and Reynolds did live in Australia--seriously, the two of them went to Australia and did a podcast that seriously mocked Australian men during WWII. That takes guts.

I'm often not fond of the duo's politics (one of them is convinced Bush didn't actually win Ohio in 2004 and one or both of them mocked Cold War union opposition to Communism in the "Hard Hat Riot" episode, forgetting that Bolsheviks aren't fans of independent unions), but they do point out in the episode "The Racist Record-Keeping Of Virginia" how government gathering information on citizens can be abused even generations later. That's something to keep in mind, especially in the age of Trump.

In any event, they're both pretty darn funny and I recommend this podcast for those who like good comedy, who like history, etc.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Blast from the Past Movie Review: Starship Troopers (1997)

For the podcast Myopia: Defend Your Childhood, we decided to watch the 1997 Paul Verhoeven film Starship Troopers, an adaptation of the Robert Heinlein novel. Nick had intended for the podcast to be split up between himself and Daniel, who loved the movie, and a friend of ours and I, who didn't like what Verhoeven did with the movie. Sufficient to say, real-life intervened, but we still managed to get four people on-panel. You can listen to the podcast here.

And now for the review...

The Plot

In the 23rd Century, humans have begun colonizing other worlds under the auspices of the Federation, a rather strict government in which the right to vote and other rights are dependent on serving in the military. The humans encounter another race, the insect-like Arachnids, and soon war breaks out. A group of friends from Buenos Aires--Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien), Carmen Ibanez (Denise Richards), Dizzy Flores (Dina Meyer), and Carl Jenkins (Neil Patrick Harris)--enlist in the military and soon join the fight.

The Good

*The movie has a great soundtrack. I was not allowed to see the movie in theaters when it came out, but I did get the soundtrack for Christmas that year. I particularly like Klendathu Drop.

*Although I complain mightily about Verhoeven mocking the book's ideas (at least some of my complaints might have been edited out at my request to avoid being too rant-y), the movie was far more faithful to the book than I remember. The novel starts out with Rico and his comrades dropping into battle before beginning his story in Buenos Aires and the film starts out with the rout on Klendathu before shifting "one year earlier" to Rico and his friends in high school. Also, Rico's dad is an egregious pill in the film, just like in the book, while his mother is more reasonable.

*There are some decent character arcs. Johnny begins the film as not really believing in the Federation's ideology of citizenship--his teacher even points out that he's repeating the textbook verbatim when he's asked what differentiates a citizen from a civilian--but by halfway through the film, when a character close to him dies, he's coming to believe in civic virtue, sacrifice, etc. wholeheartedly. Zander Barcalow (Patrick Muldoon), who starts out the film a rival for Carmen's affections and is kind of an a-hole, informs her that Johnny actually did survive Klendathu, gets both of them to safety during the attack on Planet P, and goes out defiant before nothing less than a tractor-trailer-sized swarm-leading Brain Bug.

*Some characterization is done very subtly. Dizzy has a crush on Rico from the beginning, which is exposited via some long glances and rather catty, high-school-girl type behavior toward his then-girlfriend Carmen. And we see shades of Barney from How I Met Your Mother in Carl when he dances with Dizzy when Johnny rejects her. For a gay guy, Mr. Harris is really good at playing heterosexual womanizers for some reason.

*The film has some well-done battle sequences. Although a lot of the film is rather dull (more on that later), the fight scenes aren't.

*One of the great writing maxims is, "Show, don't tell," and Verhoeven illustrates the ugly side of the Federation without explicitly saying "THIS IS BAD! THIS IS BAD!" A criminal is tried and sentenced to death far too fast for a proper investigation to take place (and I say this as a supporter of the death penalty) with the execution being televised for good measure, the government is obviously spinning a natural disaster to justify a war, one character openly admits she's serving so she can get permission to have children, there's some incredibly goofy propaganda involving children, etc.

*Verhoeven does retain the multinational/multiracial character of the Federation from the novel. In the book the protagonist is Filipino, he has Turkish and even Japanese comrades (the book wasn't written long after WWII so this is especially significant), etc. With a downright alien foe like the Bugs, prejudice-prone humans have a more other-y "Other" to hate on and stuff like racism, sexism, etc. seem really petty. The film's main cast is entirely too Anglo for people who live in Buenos Aires, but there a fair number of background characters (fellow high-school students, various soldiers) who aren't white.

*Although in the book the Bugs had roughly the same technology humans had, including energy weapons, the Bug designs are generally pretty cool. I especially liked the warrior bugs with their coloration and sharp edges. Slap some laser cannons on them and they'd be perfect. I'm glad the television series Starship Troopers: Roughnecks retained the design, even if they skipped out on the "Bugs have guns" stuff too.

*Heinlein wrote Starship Troopers in the post-WWII era and although the war saw women serving in military roles like the WACS, WAVES, etc. I don't think the idea of women in combat would have occurred to most Americans. Verhoeven depicts the sporty Dizzy Flores as a capable fighter and Carmen, despite not being a trained infantryman, can hold her own even while wounded. I'll give him points for that.

*The scene where the telepathic Carl prompts his ferret to harass his mother was pretty funny. So is a scene where Rico is handing Carmen dissected Bug organ after dissected Bug organ, oblivious to her growing disgust, until things get a little crazy.

*In one of the boot-camp scenes, one trainee questions why they're still training with knives. In the climax of the film, a knife comes in very handy. Chekov's Gun. :)

The Bad

*A lot of the film is really quite boring, especially the high-school and boot-camp sequences. I understand their importance for characterization, but they just were not that entertaining. And they took up a lot of the film.

*Xander is Carmen's flight instructor once she starts actually navigating capital ships, but he's around the same age as her and Johnny. He's explicitly depicted as being a football player for a rival school when Johnny and Carmen are seniors. If he were, say, the older brother of a friend of Carmen's who shipped out for the military some years before and is back in town on leave, that could explain Carmen's "man in uniform" attraction to him and how he's realistically that much more experienced.

*Carmen takes a wound that should either kill her or at least cripple the affected limb, but she's able to run around, fight, etc. not long afterward.

*It's generally a bad idea for a director who hates a book to do the adaptation. Verhoeven only read part of the novel and didn't like it. Don't take my word for it--check out the relevant Wikipedia section here. Verhoeven had his own vision--to satirize militarism, right-wing politics, etc--from the beginning and only shoved Starship Troopers in after pre-production began. He didn't like the message of the novel and deliberately mocked it by associating it with fascism, aggression, etc.

(No fascist book would pity "the poor bloody infantry" who are all that stand between home and "war's desolation" the way Heinlein's novel does. A fascist book would glorify death in battle, and the book does not. Heinlein and Verhoeven would agree that war is awful, but Heinlein would recognize that it's necessary sometimes and Verhoeven likely wouldn't. I can understand why Verhoeven would see all sides in a war as morally the same--he grew up during WWII seeing Dutch civilians killed by Allied air strikes against occupying German forces--but he had to totally warp Heinlein's Federation into a bunch of Nazis and then make them the aggressors against the Bugs in order for this to work.)

For my left-wing readers, I imagine if I produced a film adaptation of The Handmaid's Tale depicting the Republic of Gilead as a Christian utopia in which women are happy to be at home and out of the rat race, various minority groups are better off "in their place," the persecuted Quakers are dangerously naive idiots, and the Baptist guerrillas in the Appalachians and the "Libertheos" (I'm guessing some relation to Liberation Theology) fighting the regime are murderous war criminals who aren't really Christian at all. Fans would justifiably howl. That's how fans of Starship Troopers feel when faced with this "adaptation."

(For the record, I actually liked THMT, even though the idea that the U.S. military would overthrow the government to install a Christo-Taliban regime in which women are forbidden from reading and writing is ridiculous. It's well-written and far more nuanced than I'd expected when I started reading it. I still wouldn't be the best director for it, even if I wouldn't deliberately do a hatchet-job the way Verhoeven did.)

We need to move on, but I'll leave you with this criticism of the film and its differences from the book. And if you want a more overtly antiwar military sci-fi novel, check out Joe Haldeman's The Forever War. Starship Troopers is the better book, but TFW has much better characterization. I've got a spoiler-iffic review of TFW here.

*Per Verhoeven's hatchet-job, the History and Moral Philosophy class depicts the notion of voting equating to force, the idea that "violence never solves anything" as naive at best, etc. in the most vicious, bloodthirsty light possible. Funny, I remember violence solving the problem of Nazism very well, and only the most ardent "violence is wrong no matter what" pacifists would disagree with me there.

Furthermore, as has been pointed out, the boot-camp sequences are full of needless sadism--in the book, for example, when someone wonders why they're still training with knives, the sergeant explains the appropriate levels of military force for different situations instead of pinning the recruit's hand to the wall with a knife. And Johnny is flogged for something completely different in the book, not for getting a soldier under his command killed in a highly questionable live-fire exercise. The scene where Sergeant Zim breaks a soldier's arm for challenging him is much uglier than in the book--in the novel, Zim breaks his arm in the process of beating him, but in the film, Zim puts him on the ground and then breaks his arm to make a point.

*The book was notable for introducing the trope of powered armor into science fiction, but there isn't any. People are wearing what look like SWAT gear and small arms and trying to beat an enemy with inexhaustible numbers by attrition. There's air support in one scene, but no artillery or tanks. Seriously, the Federation's military tactics and equipment really suck, and this is a society that has really cool prosthetic limbs for Michael Ironside. The book depicted initial assault on Klendathu as a disaster, but it didn't fail for lack of proper equipment on the soldiers' part.

The Verdict

Daniel makes a good case that this is a great satire that was ahead of its time. However, I don't like how Verhoeven deliberately mocked the source material and a lot of the movie just isn't that entertaining. See it once. 5.5 out of 10.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Two New Cool Alternate Timelines For You...

I'm still self-banned from the alternate-history forum until sometime in June at least, and I might re-up said ban until the end of the summer at least in order to focus on finishing Little People, Big Guns over the summer (the small press I've been in contact with says 30,000 words max). However, I do drop in from time to time just to read and found a couple cool ideas.

*Here's the first one, Twilight of the Valkyries. This is a super-detailed account of what have happened if the July 20 plot had successfully killed Adolf Hitler. A former member of the site (he got banned, although I can't remember why) proposed that the ultimate beneficiary of the plot would not have been the Schwarze Kapelle anti-Hitler conspiracy within the military but the ambitious Panzer commander Heinz Guderian, who had a substantial force of tank trainees nearby and could crush the SS and Home Army both. The timeline's creator has clearly done his (or her, although almost all site members are male) research. There are hints that he's using the "Salt the Earth" scenario I posted about earlier as a model--the French Communist resistance leaders in Paris are watching the inter-German fighting eagerly.

I'm using a Guderian-rides-Valkyrie-plot-to-power scenario as the basis for a dieselpunk world I'm fiddling with, so I'm definitely watching this one eagerly.

*This is a more obscure one, based on a little-known mutiny by the Force Publique against King Leopold's rule in the Congo. It's called Mameluke Congo and postulates that if the mutineers had a single charismatic leader, they might have been able to eject Leopold's regime from the Congo completely. It turns out the Force Publique in this period was ludicrously heavily armed and Soverihn makes the case they could maintain control of the entire ex-colony and deter outside intervention, especially if the European Great Powers are all trying to keep others from taking the Congo rather than uniting to crush a challenge to white power in Africa.

(In case you're wondering, the Mamelukes were a slave military caste that ultimately took control of Egypt. The Force Publique in this scenario would adopt a sort of collective identity of their own that would transcend the tribes from which they'd been recruited.)

At present the timeline goes all the way into a delayed WWI in which the Congo is allied to the Central Powers and proceeds to ravage the Allies' African colonies--until the Royal Navy swoops in and cuts off their trade. It's not clear at this point whether the Congolese will survive the wider war, even though it does look like the Central Powers are winning.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

A Female Doctor And Bringing Back Romana

I'm not the biggest Doctor Who fan who has ever walked the Earth, but I am tapped into a lot science fiction, fantasy, and horror circles online and I've seen a push from some quarters suggesting the next Doctor be female. Here's one, which complains that Peter Capaldi is "another white guy." Here's another article I found recently that suggested a list of actresses to play a female Doctor. 

As Ms. Reese points out in the first article, there's some canonical material that suggests it's possible. Matt Smith initially thinks he's female and then finds an Adam's apple, there are older references to Time Lords regenerating as female despite having been male, etc. The Washington Post article cites several of them, one of which dates back to 1980 when present-day concerns about diversity, political correctness, etc. were in their infancy. There's apparently a female incarnation of The Master nicknamed "Missy." If the Master, a Time Lord, can change his sex/gender, surely the Doctor could as well.

I can understand the desire of many people to have a female Doctor. If you want to portray more equitable gender relations, having an older male Doctor with a succession of younger and often female companions isn't really helpful. The "Uncomfortable Plot Summaries" website refers to the Doctor as an elderly man who serially kidnaps young women. One of the Christopher Eccleston episodes even hilariously lampshades this by depicting the Doctor interrogated by police after his companion Rose Tyler is reported missing. Ms. Reese's article complains that many female companions are lovestruck damsels-in-distress and not impressive characters willing to call the Doctor out on his crap. Female viewers are likely rather sick of seeing such characters.

However, the presence of Time Lords and Time Ladies implies that the Time Lords are male and female, like humans. The cross-gender regenerations referenced above must be fairly rare occurrences--I've never heard the Time Lords referenced as being by nature hermaphrodites, non-binary genders, etc. that, if these things were fairly common occurrence, would make them. Furthermore, the Helen Mirren comment about a gay black female Doctor comes off as trying too hard.

That said, there is a way to avoid indulging in excessive PC-dom (i.e. the "trying too hard" bit I referenced above) while increasing female representation, especially in more powerful roles. After all, from a perspective of pure self-interest alone, appealing to the growing non-white non-male fandom means more popularity and more cash. My proposal would also shake things up less, avoiding aggravating the old-fashioned fans too.

That way is named "Time Lady Romana." I only watched a little of the pre-Eccleston Dr. Who programs (i.e. I might've seen a couple minutes on TV here and there), but I remember reading about a character named Romana who was a Time Lady, as opposed to a Time Lord. As a Time Lord herself she is a female character who is the Doctor's equal (unlike his companions, or at least many of them) and in the older material, rose to a very powerful position in the government on Gallifrey. Like the Master, she could be an isolated survivor of the destruction of Gallifrey or have something to do with what happened in that episode where a bunch of older Doctors came back and the planet was put in stasis or something rather than getting blown up by the Daleks. Also like the Master (and the Daleks, the Cybermen, etc), she'd be a nod to the older series, much like how old Expanded Universe stuff has been filtering its way into the new Star Wars canon.

Now, far be it from me to let you guys think I'm a white male fan insensitive to the concerns of others. :) On the matter of the role of the Doctor himself, keeping him male doesn't mean he has to be "another white guy." He could easily be played by a Caribbean or South Asian (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh) actor. Here's a bunch of British actors of South Asian background, including Naveen Andrews, who was a major character on Lost and has won or been nominated for many awards. The Afro-Caribbean community in Britain has got Mickey and I think there've been a couple black female companions too; have the South Asians got anybody?

(I'd wished they'd cast Hrithik Roshan as Khan Noonien Singh in Star Trek Into Darkness and he's the physical model for the young Great Khan in the back-story of my novel The Cybele Incident. Could a Bollywood actor be the Doctor?)

Or if that's too radical, another idea is a Middle Eastern type who isn't outright non-white but isn't unarguably Caucasian either. Owing to recent events in Game of Thrones, Alexander Siddig has become available. :) He's originally from Sudan and is of Muslim background even if there's nothing in the Wikipedia article that indicates he's a practicing Muslim. I'm aware of other Middle Eastern actors, but they're all Americans.