The White Sands Of Arrakis (A Fisking)

Those of you who are even passingly familiar with this blog will realize that the novel Dune is something near and dear to my heart. So about a week ago, my attention was drawn to this article that pretty much makes Frank Herbert’s novel out to be the original “White Man’s Burden.” I rebut this argument. Rules for the fisking: The fisked article is in italics, and my responses are in bold.

Original can be found on The Escapist. If you want to go there yourself, have fun. I’m not interested in dignifying it with more hits.

With news that a new Dune film is in the works, it’s worth pausing to

hope that the filmmakers remember that the Imperium doesn’t use guns in regular combat?

remember that Paul “Muad’Dib” Atreides is the most egregiously, preposterously, overpowered uber-hero in the history of explored space.

Aw, shit, for a moment I thought we were going to talk about something important.

In Frank Herbert’s original 1965 novel, Paul is

1. an unbeatable ninja hand to hand fighter

Except for Gurney Halleck, who fights him to a draw, Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen, who very nearly beats him, and Count Fenring, who (Paul knows) WOULD beat him, but refuses to fight him. So, unbeatable except for people who can beat him, right.

2. a human calculating supercomputer

In an Imperium where that quality is a known and trained profession, something like spies are today. So, he’s got a talent for a career path. Yes, incredible.

3. a genetically engineered male witch with a Voice that must be obeyed

Trained in that Voice by his mother, who was trained in it from her membership in an order of thousands and thousands of women who train in that same ability. Amazing. A kid who learns from his parents. Well, that IS unusual. 

4. a seer with the ability to predict the future

Very erratically and with little idea, especially at first, what he’s seeing.

5. a matchless military strategist

Trained by and partnered with older and wiser military strategists who are pretty much planetary general officers. I would hope he’d get pretty good at it.

6. the chosen one of multiple interlocking prophecies

All of which were engineered by the Bene Gesserit just in case one of their own ever needed to use them to save her skin by playing prophetess. So it’s really just one prophecy. You weren’t paying attention, were you? 

7. all of the above. He probably shits gold too while flowers spring up where he walks. Why the hell not?

Well, at a guess because there was no justification for that given in the novel. What kind of argumentation is this? OMG, THIS CHARACTER CAN DO A WHOLE BUNCH OF THINGS THAT ARE ADEQUATELY EXPLAINED BY THE TECHNOLOGY, CULTURE, AND CLASS THE CHARACTER GREW UP IN, BUT THAT WOULD BE COMPLETELY OUT OF THE QUESTION FOR ANY OF US TODAY!! I GUESS THAT MEANS HE CAN DO BULLSHIT MAGIC, TOO!!! Are you aware that science-fiction is generally about people who can do stuff that we can’t do today, because of reasons explained in the text?

Superman has super breath and even super-hypnosis in some iterations, but even when he’s muscling planets around, he looks like a pallid also-ran next to Paul, who spends his days ruling the universe, not foiling bank robberies.

Um, Paul spends exactly 0% of the novel ruling the universe. He spends about 2.5 pages at the end of the book knowing he will rule the universe as its emperor. He spends approximately 67% of the book leading a guerrilla army and running away from Harkonnens. Again: read the book. 

No wonder everyone in Dune is always staring at Paul open-mouthed and thinking about how awesome he is.

“EVERYONE IS ALWAYS!” Except for the people who aren’t and don’t. Like Gurney Halleck, who treats him like the kid he trained, and later his lord. Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen, who just wants to gut him. Jamis, who wants to gut him. Stilgar, who starts out treating him like prey, and later like a Fremen boy. “Everyone is always” means you’re going to make your point, facts be damned. Like those people who go around claiming that Jesus is basically Mithra by conveniently ignoring all the differences between those two stories. They’re the same except for where they’re different. The United States is exactly like Nazi Germany, except for the free elections, constitutional rights, and lack of gas chambers. Got it. 

Even Jessica, Paul’s mother, is overwhelmed, musing about how she’strained [his] intelligence … but now she found herself fearful of it.” Paul is amazing; Paul is terrifying. Be amazed and terrified, reader!

Because no parent has ever freaked out when realizing that they’ve managed to raise a child stronger or smarter or whatever else-er than they are. That’s a major theme of the book, in case you’d like to be better informed than the author, here.

Dune is basically a long, tripped out, ecstatically bloated reiteration of the Mighty Whitey trope. A Mighty Whitey is a European or white character who adopts the culture of indigenous people, becoming their king and gaining near mystical powers along the way. James Fenimore Cooper’s Natty Bumppo, a white man who adopted the ways of Native Americans and became the most strong and noble of them all, is an early example. Other iterations include Tarzan, the comic strip character the Phantom, C3P0 among the Ewoks, Dr. Strange (who goes to Tibet to learn Eastern magic and ends up being better at it than any Tibetans) and Iron Fist (who goes to the East to learn martial arts and ends up being better at it than … well, you know the drill.)

And aside from the rather ridiculous inclusion of C3P0 among the Ewoks, which is a parody played for laughs, all of those examples take place on pretty much contemporary Earth, with racial definitions much the same as our own.

Besides which: Paul is white? Where exactly does it say that Paul is white? He’s described early on with green eyes and black hair and a thin nose. Okay, that’s not conclusive, but let’s grant that those features seem “whiter” than not.

Then are the Fremen NON-white? Let’s look at how they’re described. Like Stilgar. When we meet Stilgar, he is anxious to reclaim a lost crysknife. He enters veiled, but reveals a face with “a thin nose and a full-lipped mouth in a glistening black beard.” Likewise inconclusive. “Full-lipped” might be taken as a racist dogwhistle, but the thin nose is exactly like Paul. But why is Stilgar concerned about the crysknife? Well, the evil Harkonnens (who are related closely to the Atreides, remember) are offering a huge reward for one. Why do they want a crysknife? Duncan Idaho explains: “With [one], a blue-eyed man could penetrate any sietch in the land.”
Wait. He could? Well then, if Paul is white… and therefore the Harkonnens are white… and a white man with blue eyes only needs a crysknife to spy on the Fremen… then what color are the Fremen?
Say it with me…

Dune is set in the far future, but Herbert wasn’t coy about drawing parallels with earthbound colonial narratives. Paul is a noble duke from a planet with a temperate climate. Though it’s the far future, he’s associated with a European-style noble tradition.

And we know that because he’s called a duke and his enemy is a baron, and they’re all ruled by a Padishah Emperor, which is a European title. Oh, wait, no: that’s stupid. Padishah is Persian, and was also used by Ottoman and Mughal rulers in West Asia. Hey, here’s an idea: maybe when so much is mashed up like this, we should consider that the parallels aren’t as absolute as all that.

He’s also the product of a centuries long breeding experiment, so he’s effectively a perfect eugenic specimen.

Um, did you just say that we know Paul must be European/white because he’s A PERFECT EUGENIC SPECIMEN? Or that a perfect eugenic specimen must be white? That’s… not a good assumption, either way, to say the least.

He goes to Arrakis, a desert planet whose inhabitants, the Fremen, are persistently linked to Arabs.

And were based, according to Frank Herbert, not only on Arabs, but the San of the Kalahari, and the Navajo. And they speak Chakobsa, which really is a secret language of the Caucasus, probably based on West Circassian. You know what word we get from “Caucasus,” don’t you?
Say it with me…

Their culture includes both the hajj and jihad.

PAUL’S culture also includes the jihad. From the Butlerian Jihad, specifically, which would be far more relevant to everyone in the universe than what Arabs believed over 10,000 years prior. So who borrowed “jihad” from whom, here? And how do the Fremen make hajj to Mecca when Earth is lost? Now if you were familiar enough with the book to really delve into it, you’d find that Herbert was way ahead of you. As hinted at above, there’s evidence that that the whole feudal system in DUNE is based on the Ottoman Empire, which would make Paul and the rest of the ruling class Muslim. Herbert even claims that the religion of the Atreides’ Caladanin peasants was a purer form of Islam than the Fremen’s religion was (Appendix II). So there’s a pretty strong case here that either EVERYBODY in this book is white or NOBODY is.*

The Freemen (sic), are portrayed with the familiar tropes of noble savages. They are fierce, proud, dangerous, loyal, and organized into tribes where (male) leadership is determined through trial by combat.

How is that different from Paul’s culture, except that Great Houses substitute for “tribe?” And birth substitutes for combat? And the Fremen are still white.

As in many an earlier colonial fantasy, the Fremen first plan to kill Paul, but when they find out just how cool he is, they quickly make him their leader and worship him.

Again, reading comprehension escapes us: They plan to kill Paul and his mother until they find out how awesome SHE is. Jessica is the one who disarms Stilgar with her bare hands. Paul has to go through another trial by combat, and even then is barely declared a man.

This isn’t a one time thing for the Fremen, either; before Paul, their previous leader/god figure was an off-world ecologist named Liet, who, in Herbert’s words “had gone native.”

And was half-Fremen, which you’d know if you read the book. Liet’s father, Pardot Kynes, would be a much better case for Mighty Whitey shenanigans, but that would require you to both a) read the book and b) base your essay on a character that only shows up in the appendices, and that’s just not as sexy, is it?
What you have here is a real failure of the imagination: you cannot comprehend that Frank Herbert might have been combining LOTS of features of LOTS of civilizations in a way to portray a culture so far in the future (over 10,000 years) that it is completely alien to us. And that’s a common means for science-fiction to portray such hypothetical distant cultures. The idea that DUNE concerns itself with our present racial angst at all is really ridiculous on the surface. Think about it. How many civilizations that are 10,000 years old can you even name? The pyramids are more recent than that! What social constructs of “race” did such people even HAVE?
Now, I’m sure if the author were to comment on this piece, he would say something like: “You idiot, I’m not talking about how the culture of the Imperium would really work: I’m talking about how Frank Herbert can’t help framing his triumphant narrative in racist and colonialist terms in a novel written in late 20th-Century America.”
To which I respond, “That frame is only there because you put it there.” I mean, you could make the exact same argument with Octavia Butler’s Dawn series: Because the Oankali arrive to save humanity from the consequences of its fratricidal war, and alter humanity without consulting them, which actually changes humanity for the better, this is a justification of real-world colonialism and “uplift” schemes. Now, how ridiculous would it be to read Octavia Butler (who is emphatically NOT WHITE) this way? Ridiculous, right?
Now obviously this is not to say that neither Herbert nor Butler were ENGAGING with issues of race and colonialism. Of bloody course they were! But they aren’t singing a hymn in praise of The White Man’s Burden, either!

The Mighty Whitey trope suggests that a white person dumped among less white people will automatically become a king and a god. But in Dune, as in other Mighty Whitey stories, there’s a bit more going on.

Firstly, that the Fremen are not less white.

Paul’s whiteness makes him an object of worship for the Fremen.

Other, less race-obsessed people, might consider that Paul’s military and physical training, his knowledge of military history and genetically-engineered prescience make him an object of worship for the Fremen, who desperately need all those qualities, considering they’re being hunted by the Emperor’s elite troops. But they say to write what you know.

But his time with them also gives him access to his full prophetic abilities, ultimately allowing him to defeat the Emperor and become the effective ruler of the universe.

Because Arrakis is the only place where the spice will become inescapable for Paul and bring him to his full powers. Again, that’s in the book.

Similarly, Tarzan is tougher and stronger than other European whites and Iron Fist has powers denied to most white people. Whitey is mighty not just in contrast to people of color, but because of his affinity for people of color.

Or just as possibly, other white people who have been forced into serfdom and outlawry. Amazingly, people do sometimes learn and grow strong when they are exposed to the ways of others who have had to survive tough conditions. I guess Paul should have kept living like he did on Caladan? Because that wouldn’t have been insulting, condescending, or racist at all.

This makes sense if you see Mighty Whitey’s might as a metaphor for imperialism. White people grow wealthy and powerful by subjugating other peoples and extracting their resources.

Now, what’s really funny here is that in order to make your narrative of “Paul The White Oppressor” work, you have to erase huge swaths of the book. YES, there’s a metaphor for imperialism, here. Arrakis is a victim of imperialism by their Harkonnen overlords supported in their imperialism by — pay attention, the name is a clue, here — the Padishah** EMPEROR. Who “grow wealthy and powerful by subjugating other peoples and extracting their resources.” Paul is a LIBERATOR of the Fremen. He is helping them to fight AGAINST that oppression. Which according to you, makes him their oppressor! I await with breathtaking interest your next essay in which you explain that sand is a metaphor for water!

In Dune, the Arrakis desert contains a loose oil analogue called spice. Spice powers spaceships rather than cars or factories. The spice is a drug which sparks telepathic and precognitive abilities and pilots must take it to steer from planet to planet. The Fremen have been made into super fighters by the harsh conditions of Arrakis. Paul takes the spice to become a prophet, and capitalizes on the misery of the Fremen when they become his warriors and sweep away all before them.

Incidentally freeing them from the Harkonnens, who made a ritual out of mocking people dying of thirst, and the Emperor, whose forces happily killed women and babies. The Fremen were already competent-but-miserable warriors who were losing. Paul’s prescience, training, knowledge of weapons, and more importantly his ability to train the Fremen, turned them into warriors that could win. But that doesn’t matter: the important part is that Paul capitalized and that’s bad. Because it sounds like capitalism. Which is bad.

Paul’s divinity and power comes from his ability to capitalize on the resources and pain of others.

No. No it does not. Paul’s powers were already there, and they are activated by the spice that is in the food he eats and in the air he breathes. He begins experiencing his expanded psychic powers before he ever meets the Fremen in the desert. The author is literally accusing Paul of breathing the Fremen’s air and equating that to theft. And by the way, the Fremen claim to “indigenous” status is pretty sketchy in the first place, considering that their ancestors are not native to Arrakis. If anything in Dune can claim “indigenous” status, it’s the sandworms, who are harnessed as riding beasts by the wonderful, “indigenous” Fremen, who plunge hooks into them and ride them to exhaustion. And Paul’s “divinity” comes from the Fremen only on a very surface level: the Fremen were primed to accept Paul not on their own, but by the schemes of the Bene Gesserit, who planted religious legends (Panoplia Propheticus) literally everywhere centuries ago so that their members could use them.

On the surface, Mighty Whitey characters are superior because of their whiteness.

Except they’re not, because the Fremen are just as “provably” as white as Paul. Paul is superior because he has powers other people do not and cannot have. He’s superior because he has wealth and training very few people have. Now if you wanted to argue that Paul is superior because of his privilege, that would be undeniable. He’s a ducal heir. He literally DOES have noble privileges. 

But dig a little deeper, and their powers are borrowed or, more accurately, stolen. They are godlike because they’ve appropriated the labor and wealth of others.

OMG! Nobles steal shit from commoners? NO! Say it ain’t so! In this essay about a novel in which feudalism is portrayed as oppressive, you have detected that feudalism is oppressive. So perhaps I was wrong, and I should instead eagerly await your essay revealing that sand is dry.
This is what happens when people get so wrapped up in current political dogma that they don’t study actual history. Revolutions and revolts are nearly ALWAYS led by discontented elites. It was true of the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, etc. DUNE is one more story about that.
I suspect, however, that the point of this essay is that you want stories of a Revolution explicitly and exclusively led by non-whites and/or the proletariat victorious without help. The hero should not be Paul, but rather Stilgar.*** If Stilgar weren’t, you know, a white guy leading white people. Paul should not exist.
What is it that outrages you here? That Paul might use his privilege to help the oppressed attain liberation. But I thought that’s what privilege was SUPPOSED to be used for!
There is literally no way to tell this story that would please you. You want characters in Paul’s position to be simply irredeemable, not based on what they do, but based upon who they are. In actual feudal times, it used to be unconscionable for a slave to aspire to noble blood. Now, it is unconscionable for a noble to aspire to proletarian blood. If Paul acts like an Atreides, he is an oppressor. If he acts like a Fremen, he’s a worse oppressor. Doubtless if he’d done nothing and left the Fremen to the Harkonnens and the Empire, he would be complicit. When EVERYTHING is oppression, NOTHING is.

Paul claims to be wracked with guilt because he sees a future in which he leads the Fremen in a path of bloody destruction across the universe. But really the guilt is for his present glory, built on blood and a deceit that the story won’t, and can’t, quite acknowledge.

Well of course it can’t. You won’t let it. None of Paul’s skill is allowed to count. All his training, all his work, all his determination counts for nothing because it comes from privilege. None of his suffering is allowed to count. He loses his father, his son, almost all of his friends and mentors, is forced to keep the woman he loves as a concubine in a last desperate gambit to mitigate the terrors of the jihad he’s failed to prevent. Paul’s choice is to either completely repudiate his status as the Messiah — in which case he and the Fremen would both lose and become victims of WORSE oppressors — or to accept the lie. That’s one of the main tragedies of the book: that Paul cannot ultimately find a path between tacit deceit and leaving the Fremen oppressed by rulers that intend to commit literal genocide.

A novel that does acknowledge it is Tasha Suri’s 2018 epic fantasy Empire of Sand. Like Dune, Suri’s book is set in a desert and features an incredibly powerful leader, the Maha. Paul’s eyes are blue, because of the spice he takes; the Maha’s pupils have “points of light within them, light as sharp and jagged as shattered glass.” And like Paul, the Maha has a terrifying attraction. Mehr, the novel’s heroine, fears that, “If [the Maha] had wanted to make me love him, I think he could have.”

The Maha is an ageless emperor whose subjects adore and fear him. But his power doesn’t come from himself. Instead, it comes from people like Mehr.

Mehr is a member of the Amrithi, a people who have an intimate connection with daiva, or desert spirits. Amritihi dancing rituals can control the gods. The Maha enslaves Amritihi and forces them to pray for his power and his empire. He’s larger than life because he’s taken other people’s lives and added them to his own.

“Without the dreamfire, you’re nothing but a man who likes to hurt people,” Mehr tells the Maha towards the book’s conclusion. The dreamfire in Empire of Sand is the connection to the gods — but it’s also just other people’s stuff and other people’s labor. Paul is a ninja/computer/prophet/king/mighty whitey only as long as the Fremen aren’t free. When they get their liberty, Tasha Suri suggests, we’ll have fewer god emperors, and maybe a more just world.

Not having read Empire of Sand, I can’t comment much here, except to note that if we accept your claim that Paul is an oppressor for teaching the Fremen the skills they need to defeat their oppressors, another parallel follows. You are (so far as my research can determine) a white American who is trying to point out all the ways non-whites are oppressed, and alert them to their oppression. And you’re making a career of writing about that. Which you could not do unless there was oppression. What does that make you?

*And if you don’t like the book because everybody is white, fine. Just don’t try to make the Fremen non-white AS WELL.
**Still neither a white nor a European title.

** Whose power, let us remember, is based on his ability to be the nastiest son-of-a-bitch with a knife in the sietch. Remember? You said that.

 

The Fault In Ourselves

I find it amusing to notice how a lot of writers and critics like to talk about the literary fashions of the day as though they are eternal truths rather than today’s fads. In the past week, I’ve seen writers bashing on J.R.R. Tolkien for writing long, info-dump chunks, both in descriptions and dialogue, not to mention for creating scenes (Tom Bombadil, anyone?) that had very nearly nothing to do with the major plot of the books. I’ve also seen another writer taking down Tom Clancy for, again, huge chunks of meandering text explaining the minutiae of the military, and giving huge chunks of backstory for minor characters. In both cases, the writers said something like, “I feel these works succeeded in spite of their flaws.”

Well, all works do, to a certain extent. I mean, Dan Brown can make money by publishing his grocery lists, and he wrote passages in The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons that conclusively prove that he doesn’t know how either cell phones or air travel work. But these same writers, who will tell you, “You can’t write the way people did fifty years ago and expect to sell” are saying in practically the same breath, “These thirty-to-seventy year old books sucked.”

Well of course they didn’t suck. The standards just changed. Hell, a lot of people didn’t like them then, but the point is that a whole lot MORE people did, and pretending that the books (any books) both violate fundamental rules of writing AND aren’t in tune with the times is just silly. It’s like saying that Shakespeare succeeded in spite of his obsession with writing in iambic pentameter, or that Sophocles succeeded in spite of insisting on having a chorus parade around the stage narrating it. Obviously, they succeeded either because they did these things and people liked it, or because that’s just how things were done and nobody cared. And they remain classics because they are such good works that even these strange features can’t turn people off to them now.

Now the observation that fashions and styles and expectations exist is a vital one for the young writer to understand. I don’t care how good you are, you are not selling the next fantasy epic in iambic pentameter. But we mist not mistake our preferences for the eternal rules of good fiction, or one day it will be us who are wondering why no one will buy our ten-years-ago styled fiction.

Pure Energy

I’ve been thinking lately about why science-fiction seems to be very enamored with the Gnosticist flavor of mind-body duality. Star Trek and Star Wars popularized an idea that seems to have been old since at least Childhood’s End in science-fiction, and was an old religious idea millennia before that: that the truly advanced beings will be “pure energy.” Bodiless souls immune to the corruptions of the flesh, which will transcend evil (and perhaps good) and go on to heights of intellect that we poor meatsacks can hardly imagine.

I suppose it isn’t much of a mystery where this comes from. After all, it is our bodies that  usually die and get hurt before our minds. It is our bodies that hunger, thirst, and age. It’s tempting to believe that without them, without the constant need to care for them, that we could be so much more.

And yet, the whole idea smacks of the same kind of naive folly that leads Terry Pratchett’s Leonard da Quirm to conclude that humans granted the power of flight would transcend war and crime because they would no longer be limited by geographical boundaries. With the power of flight over a hundred years old, we can see the ridiculousness of that claim. But it’s harder to imagine what beings of pure energy would be like, and what crimes they might commit.

The interesting thing is that these energy beings aren’t usually portrayed as terribly morally good, just… advanced. And “advanced” always seems to mean more powerful, and seldom “better.” Perhaps a good analogy might simply lie in the classism that we often see in our own cultures that assumes that rich people who work — or steal — with their minds are better than poor men who must make do with their muscles. As below, so above. We see muscle without guiding minds about us all the time in the bodies of animals, and assume that the opposite — guiding minds without bodies — must be superior. The equally possible conclusion, that such an extreme might be as damaging to us as the animal state, does not seem to occur to us.

Why is it so hard for us to see that Dorothy Sayers called it rightly when she suggested that the calling of a manual laborer to do his work honestly and well is just as important as that of a clergyman to serve with integrity and piety? Is it simply because we cannot conceive of a moral duty without moralism? With a moral sophistication that has nothing to do with a physical sophistication?

If so, it is a failure of imagination, and not its manifestation.

Black Panther And Infinity War: Choosing Who Dies On Your Hills.

So, to continue my earlier post on Black Panther, I just really want to know what the MCU was thinking when they allowed Black Panther to die as a result of Thanos’s snap.

And here, I’m not talking about the insensitivity toward a whole lot of Black fans felt by MCU making that move. That’s been discussed, in depth, by Steven Barnes and a whole lot of other people better qualified than me to do it, so I’m not bothering to recap it here. Put simply, it was really bad writing that took a dump on a franchise that MCU had obviously tried to elevate.

I mean, in a sense, Avengers: Infinity War really wrote itself into a corner. Thanos is essentially Sauron, trying to get his hands on a six-part One Ring that makes him invincible. The idea that Frodo has to win by first allowing Sauron to succeed is really fascinating. But they have Wakanda playing the role of Minas Tirith, and losing the Battle of the Pelennor Fields. But killing off all of Wakanda’s men, save M’Baku, was really foolish. Firstly, you never alienate an entire franchise’s fanbase. That’s just bad marketing.

Secondly, it really doesn’t matter that T’Challa et al. are coming back. Because now, they can never really be the ultimate heroes. They will always be the ones who had to be rescued by the real heroes. And it doesn’t matter that it was random, or that it was unfair. It’s unfair in sports when, say, a wide receiver misses a catch in the end-zone under double coverage that would have been almost impossible to catch, and then a kicker who makes a 25-yard field goal is hailed as the hero for winning the game. The kicker’s job was MUCH easier. But in sports and war that’s just the kind of unforgiving valorization of results that we have to have. In the end, victory is all that really matters, and anyone who’s ever played a game knows that this is so.

In the end, it’s just bad writing to set up characters to be the kind of heroes that Black Panther’s characters were set up to be and then kill off the main hero. It would have been far better to leave T’Challa alive and the king of nothing. Then he can redeem his failure by resurrecting the nation. And it’s not really fair either to point out that other franchises lost their heroes, too, even though it’s true that they did. Peter Quill died, yes, but in some ways, Thanos’s victory was his fault for spoiling the Removal Of The Gauntlet, so he had it coming. Spiderman died, but compared to the rest of the Avengers, he was a kid, hardly expected to pull his own weight. Only T’Challa was a king.

The only way I can see for MCU to come close to redeeming this is for the defeated characters to somehow be brought back prior to Thanos’s defeat, and being absolutely key to that defeat. In other words, for T’Challa et al. to rescue the survivors of Infinity War right back.

Black Panther, The Oscars, and the Writing of Really Great Superhero Movies

So, Black Panther was nominated for seven Oscars, including Best Picture, and I’ll be the first (actually, the millionth) to say that it deserves the nomination, at least as much as Star Wars did in 1978. Whether it wins or not, it’s a stunning film.

I’m going to preface this with a note: I’m pretty sure that I will never feel, on a gut level, how important Black Panther was to Black Americans. My Black friends who care about such things are absolutely in love with the movie, and I suspect, were I Black, I would be, too, and for a host of reasons I can only partially fathom. I think it is an awesome movie.

And yet… somehow, for me, it doesn’t quite measure up to the very best of the best movies in the superhero genre, and it took me awhile to figure out why. There was just something about it that kept me from putting it on the same level as Captain America: Civil War and The Incredibles. Because these are the superhero movies I watch again and again.

I finally figured it out a couple of days ago, and when I did it hit me like a freight train, because I’ve seen the exact same flaw in my own work, and in other unpublished novels. The problem is that it’s hard to explain. The best way I can say it is this: when you are working with complex characters, it is often very tempting to put them on the stage alone, or with only one other character. Doing so allows you to make the audience focus on them. In addition, it is VERY tempting to make especially your villains into ultimate badasses. After all, the more powerful they are, the more glorious your hero’s victory over them.

Black Panther does this with Erik Killmonger. Killmonger arrives, having killed his former partner, Ulysses Klaue — which T’Challa could not do* — and leverages this into a bid for the Wakandan throne, revealing his identity as an abandoned Wakandan prince of the blood.

But unfortunately, this screws with the film in two other ways. Firstly, it forces the film into a scene that is almost purely repetitive. We have to go through the entire “duel for the throne” that T’Challa just won against the Jabari challenger. It forces us to tread over ground already covered. Secondly, it throws the whole Wakandan throne — or T’Challa’s judgment — into question. If the throne is permanently open to challenge, then how stable can it be? It can’t and the film implies that T’Challa, already having gone through the challenge, would have been well within his rights to refuse the challenge. But he accepts, in what I consider to be the weakest part of the film. It actually makes T’Challa less of a hero, because he places Wakanda at risk of being taken over by a monarch who will have absolute power, who has shown the willingness and potential to brutally destabilize the world, and who has no reason, really, to keep Wakanda safe: Killmonger pretty much blames Wakandan inaction not only for his own terrible life, but for the unopposed colonialism and conquest of the developing world. Why does T’Challa do this? Because of guilt at his father’s action? Because he believes he can’t be defeated? Neither is a good reason.

With the admitted benefits of hindsight, I think that there were ways to avoid this. For example: Suppose the coronation itself is interrupted by the need to apprehend Klaue and the stolen vibranium. T’Challa points out that a true king must prioritize the defense of the nation over his official coronation. Then, while having the wounded Ross airlifted out by Okoye and Nakia, he chases down Klaue and Killmonger. Killmonger shoots Klaue in the back, and then proceeds to fight T’Challa and lose. Upon surrendering, he is taken into custody.

Back in Wakanda, Killmonger asks only one favor for his plea of guilt: he asks, as a descendant of the African Diaspora, to witness the Wakandan coronation ceremony. T’Challa accedes to this harmless request. At the coronation, the Jabari challenge. T’Challa wins as we saw in the film (which already hints that the Black Panther must face any and all legitimate challengers). As T’Challa rises in victory, Killmonger reveals his identity as N’Jadaka, before everyone, and claims his right to challenge as a prince of the blood. He is fresh, and T’Challa is tired, but he is within his rights. He has orchestrated the entire situation to be where he is at the right time. It makes him a little less physically imposing, but it makes him frighteningly smart. It makes T’Challa less of a dupe, because how could he have suspected such a plan? His own father unwittingly set him up. And halfway through the duel, of course, Killmonger can start telling him — and showing him — that their “fight” before had been Killmonger deliberately losing. And since it’s all one scene, we don’t have any feeling that this is covering old ground.

Even better, when T’Challa’s mother recovers him and the heart-shaped herb and takes him to the Jabari, it is discovered that Killmonger, in secret, provoked the Jabari to the challenge (we never do get a very good explanation for why they broke their isolation in the film) and used their chieftain as a stalking horse to weaken T’Challa to ensure his own victory. This can be the reason that the Jabari decide to back T’Challa, to avenge their having been played by the usurper.

I think this approach would have resulted in a more streamlined film, which would have made T’Challa more consistent with his awesome portrayal in Civil War, and does not require diminishing any other aspect of this very fine movie. Of course, it’s not going to happen. That’s not the point. The point is that I hope I — and you, if you’re a writer — can incorporate the techniques discussed to improve our own fiction.

*Actually, and this is a wonderful bit of subtlety in the film, he chooses not to to keep his people — and Agent Ross, his ally — safe. Because that’s the awesome kind of king T’Challa is.

The Challenge Of The Grind

Grinding. Can’t count the number of times I’ve heard gamers complain about grinding, that moment when the game becomes more of a chore than a form of fun, trying to rack up more and more currency of whatever form the game requires so that you can trade it in for the shiny spaceship, armor, spell, plot-point, etc. that’s necessary to be awesome and go have FUN AGAIN!

But I’d actually like to challenge the notion that grinding is, of itself, a bad thing.

No, before you get out your machetes to sacrifice me to the gods of terrible game writing, hear me out. Grind is an inevitable part of gameplay. In fact, it’s pretty much the core meta-mechanic: Do these things according to the rules and you win. You just have to keep doing them. The problem isn’t grind: the problem is BAD grind. I submit that bad grind occurs when the players get the sense that they are having to repeat the same onerous task (whether too easy or too hard doesn’t matter) in order to get the same inadequate reward.

But good grind gives you the sense that the game is worth playing. That the universe is a challenge in itself. I will use two examples of this to prove my point: The 1990s Star Control II and the present incarnation of Elite: Dangerous.

Star Control II was a resource-gathering and exploration game. But in order to explore, you have to strengthen the capabilities of your flagship and its attendant fleet. And for this you need to mine planets. The genius of Star Control was its sheer magnitude and variety: literally thousands of brightly-colored planets, filled with millions of brightly-colored minerals. The more valuable minerals were mostly on the most dangerous planets to explore, presenting you with a cruel dilemma: do you take the chance of mining a dangerous planet for the rich rewards and losing your valuable shuttle altogether? Or do you content yourself poking about the safer, poorer planets, losing valuable time? I never heard anyone complain about the “grind” in SCII. And yet, all the elements of the grind were there. What saved it was the inherent tension, and the ability of the player to set his own pace.

Elite: Dangerous has a different sort of grind: the grind of the journey. You can fly to the center of the galaxy. It’s likely to take about a month of game time, but you can do it. And on the way you’re going to discover nebulae, planets, wrecked ships and more. It’s a grind: a never-ending series of jumps. But you can play the game without doing it. And there’s always something new to see. And you don’t get the reward of taking the long journey without, well, the work of taking the long journey. Which is, of course, the entirely appropriate price to pay.

Less Is Not More, And Deconstruction Does Not Build.

Last week, my retro review on the film No Country For Old Men got a fair amount of commentary from people (for my blog, anyway), from people who liked the film. One friend of mine said that he found its deconstruction and defiance of tropes refreshing.

Of course, it shouldn’t be necessary (but I admit that it is) to say that anyone can like anything, for any reason. We all have films we “just like” no matter what, either because we think they’re objectively better than most people do, and can defend that on some level, or they just tickle our “cool” centers in all the right ways. And if No Country For Old Men is to your taste, then far be it from me to say you can’t or shouldn’t like it.

But I do challenge the defense of the film on the grounds that it defies conventions. Nothing is good or interesting JUST because it “defies” anything. A raw onion sundae would “defy” the tropes and conventions of dessert. That doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.

For too long, critics and authors who would claim the avant-garde position have used the term “deconstruction” as a defense for works that ignore or leave out major elements of storytelling, and use it to praise them as somehow being wonderfully creative or bold. And I’m sorry, but it’s past time for someone to say that The Emperor Has No Clothes. And I find that analogy strictly accurate. The Emperor’s problem wasn’t that he said, “Hey, everyone, I’ve decided that nudity is the way to go!” No, the problem was that he insisted that everyone admire his “new clothes” and threatened to call them fools if they refused and spoke the truth.

In the same way, works like No Country For Old Men provides less than a traditional story and their writers and admirers insist that they are more. That they are somehow “more real” or “more authentic” than a “traditional narrative” because it lacks what that narrative provides: structure, conflict and resolution. It’s like Raw Food fanatics who don’t cook and insist that they are superior for refusing to. And those are all the marks of a fad, not of penetrating insight.

Now, does that mean that deconstruction is always bad? Of course not. Especially as a writing exercise, it can be very good, because it can point readers and writers to fresh understandings of how and why stories work. Just like tasting raw foods can help people become better cooks and appreciate a wider variety of tastes. But acknowledging and using that fact is very different from plopping some artistically-arranged crudité on someone’s plate and telling them it’s better or more “authentic” because it defies the tropes of cooking.

And yes, of course “traditional narratives” can get old, tired and overdone. But that doesn’t mean that they are automatically old, tired and overdone simply by adhering to conventions of structure, any more than cooking or clothing can become passe by applying heat to food or cloth to bodies. In fact, what is more likely is that the “challenges” to these structures will become passe even more quickly, because they are by definition less complex and more reliant on a single factor to please their audience: the “defiance” of convention. They have little or nothing else to recommend them.

And when these avant-garde, deconstructionist, “challenging” scripts are themselves, in the normal course of things, challenged, too many of their admirers defend them by essentially saying, “If you don’t like it, you’re just too stupid and unsophisticated.” That this is not even an argument, let alone a good one, should hardly need to be stated. And if it is to be contended that the man who can appreciate more tastes is more sophisticated than the man who can appreciate fewer, the limits should be obvious. Certainly, a man who can only eat chicken nuggets and macaroni and cheese is no better than a five year-old child. A man who can appreciate lobster, caviar, and balut is likely a passable gourmand. But a man who can appreciate eating wood-shavings and moldy tomatoes is at least flirting with insanity.

Finally, I reject the contention that deconstruction or defiance is necessary to engage with the full range of human experience. Certainly, there is value in pessimistic themes, such as memento mori, or the idea that fate will work against the righteous and support the evildoer. But as I pointed out previously, that was being done as long ago as Oedipus Rex and arguably, Gilgamesh. In fact, Llewellyn Moss’s character in No Country For Old Men bears some resemblance to Gilgamesh: a “hero” who essentially wants to steal happiness and yet finds out that he can’t because fate will not allow it. Therefore it is disingenuous — and in fact objectively false — to argue that the expressions of such themes are somehow objectively “new and refreshing.” In fact, it is just another well-known trope with “the gods” and “fate” filed off and replaced by labels saying “chaos” and “real life.” It is, as I said, Satanas ex machina, with the writers taking the side of the villains rather than the heroes.

Furthermore, were we to hold the sequence of events laid out in No Country For Old Men up to a mirror, with the heroes in the place of the villains, with Chigurh running stupidly after Moss but being thwarted at every turn by the power of the hero’s… well, purity and righteousness (since the only explanation we ever get as to how Chigurh can vanish in the middle of gunfights, and appear noiselessly behind ex-special-forces officers is that he’s a relentless psychopath), the story you’d get would be somewhere between the fantasies concocted by my 9-year old (in which the Rebel Alliance has 5 Death Stars and destroys the Empire with contemptuous ease) and bad anime, where the heroes laugh/sneer at the bad guys while kicking their ass. And people would justly say, that it is puerile and simplistic. But somehow, when nihilism and brutality are held up as the bestowers of supremacy, rather than faith and chivalry, we are to believe it is thoughtful and sophisticated.

And this is simply wrongheaded. It is false sophistication, similar to the college student who sneers at his middle-school brother for slurping down strawberry soda while extolling black coffee and chugging Budweiser. It’s saying, “Look how grown-up I am!” It says more about the critic than it does about the film when what is NOT there, (character motivation, backstory, plot structure) is held up as a virtue. It’s not a virtue. It’s actually less. And it can be a very well-acted/directed “less,” (which I will stipulate that No Country For Old Men is) just as bad anime or science-fiction can LOOK awesome. And of course, it’s possible for that to be more enjoyable. There’s LOTS of “traditional narrative” films worse than No Country For Old Men, just as I’ve had lots of “apple pies” that have tasted worse than a really good raw apple. But a true judgment will be found in comparing the best of both.

 

 

 

Retro Review: No Country For Old Men… Or Anyone Else.

Spoilers Be Here, for anyone who still wants to see it.

So, having nothing better to do while I wrapped presents, I decided to fill in the gaps in my filmography and watch NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN on Netflix, having heard that it was good from… well, lots of places.

Tell me, when did Tommy Lee Jones let people convince him that it was intellectual to appear in movies where nihilism got substituted for plot? For that matter, when did Americans get convinced of that? And can we all finally agree that it’s basically the professorially approved version of the neckbeards who go around thinking that reading Ayn Rand makes them edgy?

This movie is basically The Hunted with two more characters, and a less-satisfying ending, which up until this point I would not have believed possible. But no, we’re not supposed to be disappointed with the ending, in which the supposed protagonist gets killed off-screen by random Mexican drug-lords, the villain walks away from a random car crash, and Tommy Lee Jones literally never sees either of them. No, we’re supposed to admire, as one critic tells us, how “The Neo-Western which builds on recognizable Western imagery to reach a very different conclusion and worldview. ” One in which “We’re left with a frightening interplay of the arbitrary and the inevitable, in which we must fear both moral punishment and the total lack of moral order , yet can’t trust in either,” because Moss the thief protagonist is killed, the sadistic villain Chigurh gets away, and the sheriff never comes close to saving or catching anyone.

We’re supposed to believe that this symbolizes the triumph of chaos and nihilism, and that Chigurh’s ending — that Chigurh himself, symbolized by his coin toss — is a sort of avatar of merciless fate. Which is absolute and total bullshit for any constructed story as a claim. Because there is no structure here. There is no overwhelming weakness of the protagonists that leads to their downfall, nor any strength to the villain that ensures his triumph. The only chaos that is generated is that which the Coen brothers generate themselves. Which is, of course, as all bad writers know, MUCH easier than writing characters. Characters have to have consistent motivations, skillsets, ethics, etc. But Fate can do anything, at any time. Can’t question it; it’s Fate! This is not innovative writing nor is it new. It is a mere funhouse reflection of the old, a Satanas ex machina in which the forces of evil obey the writers’ command to turn everything to shit.

In so doing, the film recapitulates the old saw that gets trotted out in every shitty graduate English Studies department in the world when you dare oppose the orthodoxy of nihilism and the Miserific Vision of the senseless, the brutal, the chaotic world: “It is questioning the idea of meaning.” I remember asking, when I was still in one of those programs myself, “Well, do I get to question the utility of that question?” My professor just looked at me and said, “No.”

And that is why films like NO COUNTRY are symbolic, not of some transcendent truth about the triumph of chaos, but of the infantilization of studies of Literature. You’re just not allowed to question the question. Essentially, the writers of such films get to put their fingers in their ears and scream “I asked first!” and pout at you for not playing their game. But it isn’t a game. It’s not that interesting, because the outcome has been predetermined from the start. It’s Oedipus Rex with the basic goodness and nobility of Oedipus subtracted from it. Instead of a man who wanted to be a hero brought low by the machinations of the gods, we have a low opportunist smacked down by fate and a sadistic hit man elevated because reasons. This isn’t a reexamination, much less an insight, into old themes, it is their parody and degradation. It is, as Chesterton said, “the thought that kills thought.” And as Roger Ebert said of another film, “It is like the story of a man falling off a cliff. There is no possible action but that he continue to fall, and no possible outcome but that he hit the ground and die.” The only difference in this film is that we are made to think that there might be a different outcome for most of it. In other words, NO COUNTRY was a bait-and-switch that robs not only old men of their country, but the rest of us of two hours of our lives.

And the sons-of-bitches who committed it ought to be made to give it back.

 

Handwavio Obviosum: Harry Potter and the Woman Behind The Curtain

Read The Goblet Of Fire to my kids earlier this year, and it struck me that the Triwizard Tournament about which the story revolves is really a great example of an author wanting very desperately to have her cake and eat it, too. If Rowling has a strength as an author, it’s her ability to write characters we fall in love with and hate (because they’re all of us and the kids we went to school with) and her ability to pace her stories to keep us reading.

But she never was a gamer, and she doesn’t understand games. This should have been obvious with her creation of Quidditch, a game that exists for no other purpose but to catapult Harry alone to stardom, by placing him in the position on a team to always, 100% of the time, win (or rarely, lose) the game for his House.¹ And there are no other sports (seriously, when have you ever been to a school where there is ONE sport?) and they never play other schools (which is kind of odd, because there are WORLD CUPS in Quidditch, aren’t there?)

This was never more obvious than the Triwizard Tournament. Granted, Rowling has a serious problem, here: just making Harry the Hogwarts champion by random draw would be a coincidence of the first water, and unbelievable. Of course, she could have had Moody/Crouch make certain of that by using some previously-unknown spell to make him the real champion, but it would have been a dead giveaway since it is indeed only logical that junior and senior (6th and 7th year) students will be the most capable of doing ANY task in a high school. Plus, of course, it loses the entire reason that Cedric can be killed and for Harry to be hated throughout the book.

So Rowling comes up with the whole fourth champion trick. Which serves every purpose except making any actual sense. Consider: the solutions that everyone but Dumbledore arrives at are quite sensible: 1) Don’t let Harry Compete, and 2) Give the other schools additional champions.
When these solutions are proposed, there is a lot of handwaving about some sort of “magical contract” that demands Harry compete, so that we do not pay attention to the woman behind the curtain who does not want the plot to go that way, dammit! But never a word is said about how it will be enforced. The Goblet, having chosen the champions, has no further role to play in the tournament.² There was no reason that Dumbledore could not have agreed to the quite reasonable solution of having Harry operate under impossible constraints (e.g. Giving Harry only one minute to accomplish each challenge). Or, since all the events but the final were judged, and the judges were under no constraints to judge fairly, by simply instructing the judges to give Harry zeroes no matter how he performed.  In fact, it’s kind of out of character that Maxime and Karkaroff don’t do that.
But even so, who does this magical contract punish if it’s not carried out? Hogwarts? How? Harry? Apparently not, because Harry drags his feet over the Second Task and goes into it completely unprepared, and the Tournament makes no move to punish him for his procrastination. This of course would have been the easiest way for Harry to avoid the opprobrium of his fellow students: just refuse to succeed.

So what can we learn from this? I suggest a few basic lessons: Firstly, don’t make things you have no interest in (like sport and games) central to your conflict. Secondly, if you create something like a “magical contract” it needs to have an enforcement clause. Real things have real consequences. Finally, handwaving to make people stop asking questions rarely works well.

¹This would have been easy enough to fix, by the way, and still let Harry do his thing. The obvious solution would have been to make the Snitch catchable by every player on the team and then make Harry a Chaser who was just really good at finding Snitches.

²This also would have worked as a partial fix. If the Goblet itself had magically spawned the challenges, this would have actually made sense. It would not have continued the tournament until Harry passed (or failed) his challenge, and additional challengers would have had no challenge to fight.

 

Science Fiction Pet Peeve: Really Bad Naval Architecture.

Okay, it’s time to discuss one of my favorite topics: Pet Peeves Of Science-Fiction. In this edition, we’ll discuss really awful naval architecture.
Naval architecture is, of course, the science and art of designing warships. Now, for most of history, warships were really just floating fighting platforms that rammed into each other, after which the soldiers aboard tried to kill one another in various awful ways. With the advent of guns, people had to decide where to put them, and the physics of sailing pretty much meant that the guns, which were very small compared to the ship, had to be placed in broadsides, like so:
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However, with the advent of better steel and larger guns, cannon could be built that were a significant fraction of the ship’s width, and launch shells that would gain a lot from being able to elevate the guns significantly. Additionally, these guns were too heavy to permit the ship to carry twice as many of them that would be permanently pointed away from the ship. With the simultaneous elimination of sail, that meant that guns could and should be placed in turrets with about 270 degrees of action, thus:

Image result for uss new jersey deck plans

Of course, 360 degrees of action would have been better, but you have to have a place for the bridge, the smokestacks, and of course, the OTHER GUNS to be, safely.

Okay, so that’s basic fields of fire as influenced by technology. Okay, ready? THIS is an Imperial Star Destroyer:

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Take a good look at the turbolaser batteries. They are arranged in broadsides, and they are tiny compared to the ship, and most ridiculously, they are in turrets.

Now, the fact that they are tiny is not a problem. We know from Star Wars canon (no pun intended) that these are very powerful ships. It may be that Star Wars ships HAVE to be that much bigger than the weapons they carry simply to power them, and that most of that mass IS power generation.

But they are arranged in broadsides, and only half of them can fire at a given moment because of the superstructure. Which begs the question: was there any reason these guns couldn’t have been put on the BOTTOM of the ship? They can’t even fire forward or aft except at half-strength, because the guns block each other. For a simplified version, they look like this (please forgive the ridiculously poor computer drawing skills):

ISD 1

Now in space, there’s no excuse for this., especially when we know that the Star Wars universe has the technology to make very fast and maneuverable turrets. The only way this makes sense at all is if a Star Destroyer can roll and pitch so fast that turrets don;t really matter at all, and we know from the events of pretty much all Star Wars movies that this is not the case.

A far superior design would be this:

ISD 2.png

From this design, we can immediately see that I don’t know how to manipulate images very well, but we can ALSO see (and this is my point) that with larger, globular turrets that could clear the entire hull, a Star Destroyer design could easily have been imagined that would have allowed all turrets to bear on targets both above and below and (assuming, again, large turrets and a FLAT hull), to fore and aft, and even to both sides simultaneously by offsetting them as pictured. The bridge (assuming it could not have been buried deep in the hull, which is where it always SHOULD have been) could be moved up front.

Why isn’t this done? Well, I suspect that for one thing, people tend to find asymmetry ugly, even when it is practical. And for another, Lucas seems to have really liked the idea of big ships with tiny guns, possibly to justify his overreliance on space fighters (about which more another time). But it just annoys me when people build ships that, for no apparent reason, have huge unnecessary blind spots. When we build the ships of the future, they should at least be well-built.