Protagonists: A Spotter’s Guide

Works of fiction are almost always centered around protagonists. Sometimes, however, it is difficult to tell who the protagonist is. It is possible to have multiple protagonists. One of my favorite novels, which provides a fascinating study of different kinds of protagonists, is A Civil Campaign by Lois McMaster Bujold, which I highly recommend to everyone. Although to get full enjoyment out of it, you really should read The Warrior’s Apprentice, Brothers In Arms, Memory, and Komarr  first. Do it: it’s not a bug, it’s a feature, and if you don’t like them, you have no soul.

Finished? Good.

Now, we could cheat, looking at this book, and say “anyone whose point of view we see the action through is a protagonist,” but that’s no fun, and not always accurate. For example, we see through Quentyn Martell’s POV in the Song Of Ice And Fire series, but it’s hard to argue that he rises to the level of protagonist of anything but his own story, and by that definition, every character in any book, including, say, Greedo, is a protagonist. So that’s a useless definition. However in this case it does give us our five protagonists: Miles, Ekaterin, Mark, Kareen, and Ivan.

The two pairs of lovers, Miles/Ekaterin and Kareen/Mark can give us a wonderful lesson in how to give two protagonists the same, or nearly the same, goals. Bujold does a wonderful job setting this up so that the males of the pairs have essentially the same goal: win the fair damsel. The females of the pairs also have, really the same goal, which is, become a fully-capable person. Yet the flavors of the goals are highly individual: Kareen’s is a coming-of-age story. She is a child becoming an adult. Ekaterin’s is a story of recovery: she is an adult who was scarred by emotional abuse. Both struggle to escape emotional and financial dependence.
On the male side, Miles’s drive to succeed, usually a great asset, becomes his tragic flaw: his determination to win Ekaterin leads him to deceive her dishonorably, and begin a long road to redemption. Mark, on the other hand, must overcome his self-doubt in order to take any action toward helping Kareen, so he can solve his own problem.

(And I just realized that put this way, it sounds like I am describing the most boring piece of romantic, navel-gazing lit-fic in the world, rather than the sharp, funny, action-packed novel it really is. A later blog will explain how Bujold pulled this off.)

However, in the end, Bujold creates four living, breathing protagonists, each of whom have their own unique conflict that means the world to them, and each of them solves that conflict. That’s vitally important: not only does the protagonist HAVE his or her own conflict, s/he SOLVES it by making his/her OWN vital decision. BUT, each of the protagonists does have an important role to play in helping to solve the others’ problems. This creates the complex interplay that makes the book succeed so well.

But lastly, we have Ivan. Is he a protagonist, or not? At first glance, he is not. Unlike the pairs of lovers, Ivan is played purely for laughs. His romantic goals are pursued half-heartedly at best, and his pursuits fail as soon as he begins them. How then, is he a protagonist?

And the answer is this: Ivan’s goal is to help his ex-lover, Lord Dono (formerly Lady Donna) win his goal of being appointed Count Vorrutyer. A close examination of the text reveals that while Lord Dono is quite capable of running his District, he is utterly incapable of acquiring it through political maneuvering. And from inception to climax of that plot, Ivan is the key to turning Dono’s campaign from an utter failure to a triumphant victory. This gives us an important lesson: a protagonist’s goal need not be solely his own. It can be carried out in the name of another, provided that the protagonist achieves that goal in the pivotal moments.

The Girl With All The Gifts (Spoilers)

This is really my Friday post. It’s today because I had an old friend over for the past three days, whom I haven’t seen in years, and probably won’t see again for a few years. So I am releasing some content from my Patreon site in the hope that my readers will enjoy it.

This wasn’t the movie I planned to write on this month, but I watched it. First of all, I HIGHLY recommend it. It’s a wonderful film, much deeper than the average zombie movie, and in my opinion, is what I Am Legend should have been. Second of all, spoilers ahead, so go watch the movie. I’ll wait.

Are you finished? Good! Wasn’t it cool? Yes, it was.

BUT! Ooooooooooohh, but…

I’m sorry, I still don’t buy it. Two things I especially had trouble buying:

First, the zombie fungus. Here you have an organism that destroys all higher functions of the body in the name of eating. But, wait! They can’t eat each other, so the fungus has to spread almost instantly and render the bitten human unpalatable.  Most zombies, in fact, are almost unmarked by the initial attack. But the zombies do attack and eat (and apparently do not infect) animals.

But then the film shows us two (arguably three) amazing things: the first is that the plague has apparently been around for at least 12 (maybe 11) years. And second: the zombies don’t apparently NEED to eat. In London, we see them standing around in a dormant state when no food presents itself.

So, we have a fungal infection that stimulates hunger, but apparently does not need ANY food. It doesn’t need to consume its host, or the food of its host. And it keeps the host from decomposing.

Thirdly, it keeps the host’s CLOTHES from decomposing, which is arguably more impressive.

All this adds up to a question not easily answered: if the fungus does not NEED energy to live, then why does it infect at all?

But the real problem I see here is with the humans. They’ve been fighting this war for twelve years. Now, in six years of WWII, the last time the planet was faced with foes that would absorb the full might of its industrial powers (each other) humans invented the main battle tank, the jet fighter, and the atomic weapon. The humans have held out for twelve years against the zombie horde, which means they MUST have an agricultural and industrial base, and they have developed…

ZOM-B-GON zombie repellent. Stops the zombies smelling you.

And that’s it.

Now, the zombies are fast, but mindless. It’s not too hard for ME to figure out how to get rid of them. What you want is pits with stakes, minefields, and multiple fences with the gaps filled in with concertina wire. Hell, the zombies chase vehicles that are faster than them and don’t look where they were going. You could run dump trucks laying high-explosive mines in front of them until they were gone. And why is London even THERE any more? Why are we not getting rid of the dormant zombies with nuclear strikes? Humans have invented NOTHING to combat this menace. Not bite-proof body armor, not rifles that throw explosive shells (instead, they’re still relying on headshots with standard rifles), no. There are ZERO anti-zombie weapons, or tactics, in play.

So my conclusion at the end of the film was that the human race pretty much had it coming.

When The Watchmen Escape

A conversation on my Patreon the other day saw one of my patrons make the following point:

“Alan Moore was clearly pointing out that superheros were, by nature, indulging in sado-masochistic escapism, and their exploits should not be seen as heroic in any way.”

I’m going to take partial issue with those ideas, because I think that if that is Moore’s point, he fails to achieve it, at least in the way he wanted to.

Watchmen is a challenging and staggering work, no doubt, and one I have admired since reading it. And I partially agree with the statement: the Watchmen really aren’t heroic. Rorschach and the Comedian are psychopaths, theist and nihilist sides of the same coin. Ozymandias is a Stalinist tyrant, willing to slaughter his way to world peace, the Silk Spectres and the  Night Owls are dilettantes, using “crime-fighting” as a means to fame and self-esteem. Finally, there’s Dr. Manhattan, who is too powerful to be heroic in any true sense.

But is “not heroic” the same as “escapist?” While the Silk Spectres and the Night Owls, I think, can justly be accused of attempting to “escape” from the hard realities of the problem of crime, it strikes me that the other four are, in fact, finding their own ways of addressing what they see as cold, hard reality, and we see four separate means of engagement.

The Comedian considers morality to be a big, meaningless joke, and his response to it is essentially to revel in the knowledge and inflict pain on whoever he feels deserves it at the moment.

Dr. Manhattan is like the Comedian, except that his response to the meaninglessness of life is to disengage and pity humanity, lost in its illusions

Rorschach is the opposite of the Comedian, in that he considers a firm moral compass to be indispensable, but accepts that he will forever struggle against the corruption of an unworthy world, purging it of its worst offenders.

Finally, Ozymandias contrasts with both Rorschach and the Comedian, except that he sees the problem of human evil to be soluble with enough power at the disposal of enough intelligence, while still laughing at the idea that “morality” can apply to a superior being such as himself.

Of these four, only Dr. Manhattan and Ozymandias can be said to be seeking “escape” from the realities of human life. Dr. Manhattan does it by denying, and Ozymandias does it by — if coldly and with horrible calculation — affirming its value. Rorschach and the Comedian — the psychopaths — escape nothing. They embrace what they perceive as reality, and dive into it headlong. To call them escapist would be to deny the problem of evil they face. But if there is no problem, then from what are they being accused of seeking to “escape?”

J.R.R. Tolkien, on having heard that fantasy was being denounced in high literary circles as “escapist” is quoted by C. S. Lewis as having responded, “What kind of men are so concerned that people might ‘escape?’ Only jailers.”

And so I must ask, if Alan Moore is trying to rail against the escapism of comics, who is doing the escaping? Is it the Comedian, trying to escape his responsibility as a moral being? Is it Rorschach, trying to escape the futility of life? Surely they cannot both be trying to escape: they are running in opposite directions. One of them is running the right way.

Or is the true escapist Alan Moore, who does not want to face that very dilemma?

 

Harry Potter And The Invisible Curriculum

It’s been a long day. Sick wife. Patreon Rewards due. Novel writing. Trying to land a more permanent day job. All (except the first one) good things, but tiring. So I’m just going to pen a short rant here:

It strikes me that the greatest feat of magic ever produced at Hogwarts was its ability to teach those kids things like grammar, composition, and basic math without ever having taught any classes in it. Harry Potter writes better than most of my juniors, and to my knowledge he was never assigned a single essay nor asked to read a single work of literature or piece of technical writing.

If I were a completely humorless scold obsessed with defending all aspects of my identity from the slightest hint of disrespect, I might scream at Rowling about this, as she obviously feels such instruction unnecessary, and I can only laugh bitterly at how wrong she is.

However, I can’t help thinking that there must be the potential for a whole treasure trove of secondary adventures at Hogwarts: Harry Potter and the Misplaced Modifier. Harry Potter and the Greatest Common Factor. Harry Potter and the Supporting Paragraphs. Harry Potter and the Law of Sines. Harry Potter and the Periodic Table. And of course, that page-turner, Harry Potter and the Five-Paragraph Theme of DOOM.

I may turn these into flash fiction for my Patreon supporters someday. Mention it in the comments if you’d support me in exchange for that.

The Heinlein Hypocrisy II: A Superior God

“Men rarely (if ever) manage to dream up a god superior to themselves. Most gods have the manners and morals of a spoiled child.”

“Intermission: Excerpts from the Notebooks of Lazarus Long”, pp. 243-24

I’ve always found it funny that Heinlein wrote this twelve years after his most famous work, Stranger In A Strange Land, in which Heinlein’s attempt seemed very much to be to dream up a God (or at least an Archangel) superior to human religions. I will, of course, admit to seeing some truth in the statement. Pagan gods are famous for their sexual exploits and selfish behavior. When it comes to the God of the Bible, I am going to disagree with him, though I know that many readers will just as vociferously agree. However, the discussion of whether the God of the Bible is open to such charges and the refutation of them would be material for an entire column in and of itself, and as that is not the purpose, I will simply note my disagreement for what it unarguably is: mine.

The problem I have with Stranger In A Strange Land is not that it plays around with the idea of religion, especially organized religion. That’s fair enough. But what I find interesting, and a bit hypocritical about SF writers is this: when they try to create their own gods that are superior to the gods we already have, they inevitably do so by creating a fairly standard god and then subtracting the characteristics they happen to find irrelevant. I have already pointed out in an earlier column that Arthur C. Clarke does this in Childhood’s End  with the Overmind.  Like the God of the Bible, it is an immense, near-omnipotent force. Unlike the God of the Bible it simply can’t be bothered to notice anything more insignificant than a new species to be incorporated into itself and is quite happy to maintain a slave species in perpetuity to assure itself of growth. It kills without remorse or compassion, and exists without love. But surely, growth means that you become more, not that you become less. As an adult, I have learned to appreciate whiskey. I have not stopped appreciating ice cream. And while it is true, there are games that my children love which now bore me to tears, my inability to enter fully into those modes of play is a fault in me, not something laudable.

Heinlein’s case is more complex. Heinlein as a writer was far superior to Clarke in engaging the human condition. In my last Heinlein post, I acknowledged that Heinlein was one of my favorite agnostics/atheists, and this is one of the reasons why. As an aside, Heinlein’s inner monologue in which Jubal Harshaw considers the problem of perceiving the divine is one of the most perceptive and honest engagements with the issue that I have ever seen from the agnostic point of view, and his wry look at those who believe in random chance as a primary cause is just as cutting as his engagement with religion. Valentine Michael Smith’s Church Of All Worlds in philosophy is pantheistic: Thou Art God (and so is everyone else). In the novel, the simple act of learning the Martian language (although it is not simple, of course) is sufficient to imbue the learner with  a mode of understanding that makes people morally perfect and grants them godlike powers. And I have to admit that in this, I actually see a mirror of what Paul and Christ did teach. This is in fact what “being transformed by the renewing of your minds” would look like if the Church ever actually accomplished it (though the miraculous powers might or might not follow). Obviously, such accomplishments have been exceedingly rare and transitory if they ever existed.

So what, one might ask, is my problem with it? What is missing? I would argue that what is missing is any concept of justice. Now, to be honest, I am not sure whether Heinlein would ridicule the notion that justice is something that humans “need.” However, in Time Enough For Love, one of Lazarus Long’s quotes was: “The more you love, the more you can love–and the more intensely you love. Nor is there any limit on how many you can love. If a person had Time Enough, he could Love all of the majority who are decent and just.” He also said “The only sin is hurting others unnecessarily.” This seems to imply that sin and justice are things Heinlein recognized. Then what is to be done with the sinners? Heinlein has no answer for this, it seems. The Church of the New Revelation that ends up lynching Valentine Michael Smith causes great hurt to others unnecessarily. And yet, it’s almost as though it doesn’t matter, because everyone is immortal anyway. Even Foster himself is an archangel in the end, just like Michael. And Digby, who poisoned Foster. And if someone like Foster can end up as an archangel, then one might reasonably ask what the point is of anything? If it does not matter, then why does it matter? What is the point of cherishing loyalty and duty, as Heinlein called them, the two finest inventions of the Human mind, if they produce nothing superior than that which would be produced without them? In fact, what seems to be produced by the Church of Many Worlds is not better, more just people, but only people who have more fun, overseen by what C.S. Lewis called, Our Grandfather In Heaven: “a senile benevolence who, as they say, liked to see young people enjoying themselves, and whose plan for the universe was simply that it might be truly said at the end of each day, ‘a good time was had by all.’” All well and good but we have ended up exactly where Heinlein started his objection: with a god no better than its maker.

It’s possible I’m judging Heinlein too harshly. He himself said of the book “I was not giving answers. I was trying to shake the reader loose from some preconceptions and induce him to think for himself, along new and fresh lines. In consequence, each reader gets something different out of that book because he himself supplies the answers … It is an invitation to think – not to believe” (Vonnegut). Well, fair enough. There’s a lot in the book to think about. But surely it would be disingenuous to think that Heinlein was, if not giving a social blueprint, at least proposing what a “real” religion might look like, and if so, he has hardly met his own criteria for what a truly inspiring god might be like.

I think the author who has in recent years most closely approached the idea of what a god might look like is Lois McMaster Bujold and her Holy Family as portrayed in The Curse of Chalion. They are anthropomorphic, yes, but they are good, and while their expectations of humanity are not high, they are awe-inspiring for the lengths they will go to, in spite of their limitations, to care even for individual humans.

Vonnegut, Kurt, “Heinlein Gets The Last Word” New York Times On The Web. Dec. 9, 1990.

 

 

 

Retro Movie Rant: A Brief Defense of X-Men 3

I think I was one of the few people who actually had anything like good feelings for the last X-Men movie of the original trilogy, X3, The Last Stand.

And there were things that upset me about it, most notably Scott “Cyclops” Summers’ death offscreen.

But overall, I found that the complaining was without much merit. It seemed to me that mostly, the audience was upset that the screenwriters and director had chosen to make a tragedy, in which the old X-men fought, and half of them died, for their ideals.

I mean, I have some sympathy with those who get stuck with a story they didn’t want. But in many ways, I felt the movie did an excellent job of portraying the costs of war, both between humans and mutants, and between mutants and mutants. You don’t go into that and not suffer loss. You don’t go into it and not come out scarred. And the characters who survived took up roles they had never really wanted, and found that they could do what their mentors would have wanted.

It was, to turn a phrase, not the movie we wanted, but perhaps a movie that we deserved to see.

Is It Just Me, Or Is THE EXPANSE What’s Between Julie Mao’s Ears?

If you’re currently watching Seasons 1 and 2 of THE EXPANSE or plan to do so in the future, please be aware there be spoilers here.

Okay, so first off, I really do like THE EXPANSE. It’s a fine show, with great interplanetary sci-fi action, and wonderful acting. I haven’t gotten around to starting Season 3, yet, but that is a question of time, which is in very short supply right now.

But I have to ask, am I the only person who thinks that Julie Mao was a complete idiot? I mean, the character herself is understandable, and is a great example of overused-trope-done-well. She’s a spoiled child of privilege who decides that the pathway to righteousness and holiness is to wreck Evil Daddy’s stuff. She’s determined to become the White savior (Asian savior, yeah, I know, but the principle is the same, and that sort of thing seems to have shifted a bit in the intervening 200 years) of the downtrodden Belters. So far, she’s not really different from today’s trickle of rich white kids who decide to go join ISIS or a leftist terrorist group because Mommy and Daddy didn’t fulfill them enough and there’s poor people and this proves that AMERIKKKA IS TEH EVILZ!!

But Julie outguns these poor saps because she knows that her Daddy is actually screwing around with something that’s apparently a fusion of nuclear weapons, killer AI and zombie virus, so she decides to arrange to steal it. And apparently is utterly unconcerned that she might be playing with something she barely comprehends, is incapable of controlling, and might cause literally billions of deaths if she screws up.

Hmm. Is it an accident that Julie’s name is “Mao?”

And then of course, like so many in her actual situation, is shocked to discover that she and her friends are actually the low-level bottom feeders of politics rather than an unstoppable revolutionary force, and that she has been outthought and played, all of which leads to her death and the deaths of — “revolutionaries” take note — thousands of people, almost all of whom are the very “downtrodden Belters” she was trying to “save.”

I’m sure the people of Eros were very grateful to her.

In the end, Julie Mao reminds me of no one so much as Osama bin Laden. All for the cause, kumrads! And it matters not how many we kill, because our ideology is pure!

Or am I missing something?

Honestly, I can forgive Julie Mao because she does come to a pretty bad end, and the character of the detective who falls in love with her because she represents to him a willingness to fight for what he’s given up on is compelling. I’m honestly not certain whether the writers wanted us to see irony in Julie Mao or whether they were in earnest. Hell, maybe I AM missing something. Thoughts?

The Law Of Diminishing Cool Stuff

One of the great misconceptions that readers (and non-readers) have about writers is that “ideas” are valuable. “Where do you get your ideas” is to a writer, of course, that most useless of questions, much like asking an artist where he gets his canvas or where she gets her clay. It’s just there, and if it’s a mystery to you, then you need to look at the world (and possibly art, whatever your “art” is) a lot more.

So writers are never out of ideas, and in fact generally have the opposite problem. One of my great regrets is that if I were able to become a full-time author right now I could easily write for the rest of my life and never run out of “ideas.” Conservatively, I estimate that there are at least four entire novels and five short stories, apart from the novel I am actually drafting and the one I am revising that I could be working on from the ideas I have now. I will have more.

In fact, the problem I now have come face to face with is in the novel I am revising. It was pointed out to me by my editor that I had been sloppy with my portrayal of black-powder weapons. Well, guilty. I wrote them well enough to fool the average reader (and myself, and at least one other history teacher) but not well enough for this editor’s readers. Guilty as charged.

While I haven’t gone fully into this revision yet (mostly because I’m drafting that other novel, see above) a LOT of ideas — a lot of really COOL ideas — on how to solve this have been flitting around my head. The problem, and the point of this post, is that I have reached the point of what I must call The Law Of Diminishing Cool. In other words, most of the things I can do to make the guns more awesome in ONE direction are completely inconsistent with the ways the gun is already cool in ANOTHER direction. For example, I could reduce the guns’ loading time by making introducing cartridges, or making them breechloaders. But if I do that, I lose a really cool scene featuring a ramrod. Breechloaders don’t NEED ramrods. Or, as it turns out, there really was once a repeating air rifle that saw military service! Lewis and Clark took one with them on their expedition because it didn’t need gunpowder! The Austrian Army was, at about the same time, fully equipped with them! But if I make them do THAT, I lose a really cool scene that relies on the guns having a muzzle flash. Air rifles don’t HAVE muzzle flashes.

There’s no easy way around this, although I am both looking forward to and dreading the thought process I need to solve this problem.  But you can’t just ignore it. Too many famous franchises have ignored this. They can, because people will watch them anyway. But when they do, you get really stupid consequences and lack of continuity, like in Star Wars, where the original series establishes that Force use runs in families, but then the prequels decide that Jedi are essentially Space Monks who can’t have families, but on the other hand, they also want potential Jedi kids to be trained from approximately age 3, and they ALSO want to keep Jedi from falling to the Dark Side.

Now all four of those ideas, taken separately, make some sense. It’s cool to have Jedi abilities run in families, so that Luke must take down Darth Vader. It’s cool that the Jedi are enjoined against attachment, so that Anakin can’t just marry Amidala and live happily ever after. It’s cool that Jedi must be trained from a young age. And it’s sensible that you don’t want Jedi falling to the Dark Side.

Together, these ideas are a mess. If Jedi have to be trained from a young age, wouldn’t it be best if their parents started it, and had a good idea of who they were? And if you DON’T want Jedi to turn to the Dark Side, and the Dark Side is “quicker, easier, more seductive,” wouldn’t you HAVE to train everyone, just to avoid Sith?

The answer to this is that a writer has to practice discipline. As much as you want to, you can’t just do all the ideas at once. That way lies Star Wars. I mean madness. I confuse those these days.

The Heinlein Hypocrisy Part I: What Words Mean

A late post is still a post.

“God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent — it says so right here on the label. If you have a mind capable of believing all three of these divine attributes simultaneously, I have a wonderful bargain for you. No checks, please. Cash and in small bills.” (Robert Heinlein, Time Enough For Love, New York: Ace Books, 1987, p. 247.)

As a science-fiction reader, I find that Heinlein is absolutely one of my favorite atheists. I find his theology as fascinating and infuriating as his novels: often insightful, occasionally brilliant, and then suddenly descending into downright nincompoopery. The above quote is a perfect example of the latter.

Leaving aside for the moment that only the Western and Middle-Eastern monotheistic religions have come close to assigning the above attributes to God, even for Christianity (which is pretty plainly Heinlein’s target) my search of the NIV Bible for those terms returned precisely zero hits for any of them. So… what label would this be? However, to avoid argument, let’s stipulate that whether it’s stated or not, it’s pretty much believed to be true.

First off, there’s no actual argument, or even insight, here. This is what C.S. Lewis calls “flippancy” in the Screwtape Letters; the assumption that a joke or a point has been made. It works when you’re playing to an audience that pretty much agrees with you already, and at no other time. Why Heinlein thinks these things are mutually contradictory, I can’t say, since he hasn’t deigned to tell us. But I think I have a pretty shrewd idea. Unfortunately, it’s pretty tiresome, and it’s old.

I suspect that Heinlein’s reasoning would roughly run thusly: that a God who was omnipotent is a contradiction in terms, or at least in the observable universe, since God pretty plainly allows many things to happen that He cannot approve of without being very definitely not benevolent. Unless of course, He does not know of these things. Since He does allow them, He must be less than omnipotent, omniscient, or omnibenevolent.

The problem of course is that Heinlein, who would doubtless call bullshit (as well he should) on anyone using engineering terms, or military terms outside their professionally-known meanings, has only a tyro’s grasp of theology, which, as it doesn’t interest him anyway, Heinlein does not care about. I see this often in discussions with atheists. They’re not interested in how these terms have always been defined or discussed by thousands of years of faithful Christians or Jews. They’ve seen a flaw, and by Christ (or not) they’re going to point it out.

I shouldn’t really have to say, but apparently I do, that omnipotence means that God can do anything doable. It is no argument against it that He cannot accomplish paradox, such as the old saw about making a rock so big He can’t lift it. Likewise, God is not less than omniscient for not knowing things that do not exist (such as who is going to heaven based on choices that they literally have not made), any more than a mathematician is “humbled” by a five-year-old who asks him what color the number seven is. Finally, God is not open to the charge of failing in omnibenevolence if he visits punishment on the unjust, or allows other agents to commit injustice, if He indeed does have both the power to correct injustices and the wisdom to know what justice is. “Omnibenevolence” does not mean that God is good to all people at all times, still less that those people would always perceive the good being done to them accurately.

The dishonesty and ignorance here is for someone like Heinlein to insist on the absolute definitions of amateur or non-believers while ignoring or discounting those whose vocation it has been to discuss and study such things. To condemn religion as a game for fools by insisting that God doesn’t meet these definitions according to your interpretation of them is both ignorant and unfair. What, after all, would it look like if I criticized Heinlein’s The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress for flinging goods Earthward by catapult as scientifically ridiculous… because I insisted that “catapult” must describe a machine that uses knotted ropes and stressed wood for its tension power, rather than a thirty-kilometer long, fusion-powered, magnetic mass driver? It would be like suing Nabisco for false advertising because one of their Fig Newtons doesn’t weigh 0.22 pounds in Earth’s gravity.

To such a discourtesy and to such ignorance, I imagine Heinlein would have told me to go to hell, and I would most assuredly deserve the invitation. And so does he, when he uses arguments that are just as specious and delivered from such an ignorant place. It is wise for us to remember that we cannot use such simple definitions, of course, and that theology requires some complex thought. But we must at least be willing to engage with that thought, or our theology – or our atheology – will be disastrously wrong as Heinlein’s.

Coming Apart At The Seams: Sandbox Games

Anyone who plays sandbox games knows about their “seams.” Well, maybe not. I just made up that term. But you know what I’m talking about: the places where you run into the edges of the sandbox and are pretty much forced into the realization that you are just playing a game, and it doesn’t have to make sense.

And yes, I realize that in some ways, this is inevitable. In others, it seems unimaginative, and in yet others it seems downright sloppy. I’m going to take some examples of each of these from the two games I’ve been playing the most over the past few years: Skyrim and Elite: Dangerous.

As far as the inevitable “seams,” the best example is that of borders. Eventually, you have to run out of playing field. An example of a really well-done “seam” is found in ED: the edges of the galaxy. It works because it feels natural. They even show extragalactic features such as the LMC and the GMC and M31. Why can’t you go there? Because human technology just isn’t that good. Makes perfect sense in the game universe: this is about as close as you can get to a seamless border. Skyrim is a bit less competent, but that’s the nature of the beast. Eventually, you just get to a place where your character runs into an invisible wall. You can’t leave Skyrim. I have to admit I don’t know how you’d solve that.

On the border of “inevitable” and “unimaginative” are the times in Skyrim where you run into someone who you really want to kill and discover that they are simply unkillable, or at least, unkillable yet. This has been the bane of D&D-like RPGs since they were computerized: your hero character who is supposed to be able to take down a Dragon God, and yet, cannot kill a shopkeeper and take his stuff. I’m not sure exactly how you do solve that. In the case of shopkeepers or very important plot-specific characters, especially in a magic-heavy environment, I wonder why it hasn’t occurred to the writers not to, for example, create 1) a giant alarm-spell that calls guards instantly to a scene of unjustifiable attack, coupled with 2) shopkeepers or nobles who always carry an emergency invisibility potion and sensibly use it an run the hell away when they’re attacked, leaving your character to 3) get dogpiled on by the guards, and 4) discover that they cam back as soon as you left out of boredom or being driven off by guards. Of course, once your character is up somewhere above 50th level, it still requires the game to explain why your character can’t essentially conquer the world single-handed since he is, after all, the person who is supposed to stop the Dragon God who wants to conquer the world single-handed. So there’s still a seam there (more on this later).

In the downright unimaginative corner comes a certain feature of ED that really annoyed me. Some systems in ED are permit-locked. The game won’t allow you to plot a hyperspace jump to them until you’ve accomplished something. A bit more on this in the next section.
Now, if you like thinking your way around problems like I do, you notice something: a shop in ED  really has two FTL drives. The hyperspace jump is the “fast” drive. It will take you anywhere from 8-40 light years in about ten seconds. But you get around each system using a “slow” FTL drive or “frameshift drive.” And when I say slow, it’s still really fast. Given time, it can build to speeds in excess of Star Trek‘s Warp 10. So you can’t JUMP to a permit-locked system, but given the time and patience, you could certainly just GO there…
Except you can’t. If you try, you discover that the star you have been heading for, which is a gigantic ball of hydrogen fusion and attendant planets when you jump there, is a mere point of light when you finish your hours-long flight. Sigh.
It occurred to me that a way around this would be to take a page from Zork: interstellar space is a dark place, and if you try to fly directly between stars, the odds are almost certain that You Will Be Eaten By A Space Grue. (For a really great classic SF story that uses this concept, read Cordwainer Smith’s “The Game Of Rat And Dragon.” It’s wonderful.)

And then you get to the truly sloppy stuff: Remember the permit-locks I mentioned earlier? Well, that makes perfect sense when it’s, say, the Empire saying that you can’t visit their capital system without a permit. It makes somewhat LESS sense, when its hundreds of stars out in the middle of nowhere and no one knows who has issued the permit or why. And yet there are several such regions in the galaxy. It’s pretty obvious this is the game designers saying DON’T GO THERE. SIGNED, GOD, but it looks pretty bad. Honestly, it would be better to do something like marking them all “No pilot has ever jumped to these stars and returned.” and making it an instakill if you do, with legends of the disappeared pilots in game.

So, those are my thoughts. I’d be interested to hear yours.