Gaming Rant: The Keymaster and the Gatekeeper Need To Go

Without a doubt, my favorite trope in fantasy RPGs is the cult of the Key and Lock.

This is my name for it, but you all know what I mean: it’s the conceit that the Chosen One, the Dragonslayer, the Bringer Of Destiny who shall Destroy Evil and Restore Peace to The Land, Before Whom None Can Stand…

…cannot break locks, doors, or chests.

I can’t count how many times my quests have been interrupted by the simple presence of a locked chest or a locked door. I can slay dragons, assume a phantom form, produce fire at will, and forge steel all day. But simple wooden planks and iron bars and locks stand in my way as an immovable barrier.

I can just about bet that someone’s going to say it anyway, but just in case it prevents condescending comments: YES, I am aware that game designers have to have a way (or it is most expedient to have a way) to keep players out of, to take just one example, the quests that are led to by other quests. It’s easy to break a game if, for example, you have a player just stumble upon the Elder Scroll before ever learning of the Elder Scroll’s existence. I realize that is a difficult problem to deal with.

The problem isn’t that the barriers exist. The problem is that the barriers take the forms of mundane barriers, when those barriers should be very special, because they guard the way to special places. I can think of any number of ways around this that wouldn’t carry such an overt stench of Because The DM Said So.

  1. Chests and Doors that absolutely needed to stay locked until Quest Time could be made of a magical substance, such as adamantium, utterly resistant to magical/physical damage.
  2. Locks on such Chests and Doors could function only with enchanted keys. You’d really only need to change the dialogue box for this.  Many times, I have come across “This lock can only be opened with a key.” Or “This lock is not pickable.” Replace that with “This lock requires the enchanted key.”
  3. Doors that absolutely must stay locked could function similarly to the Doors Of Moria in The Lord Of The Rings. Until you know the right enchantment or Questing Words, they won’t even appear. Or they will be magical gates. Break them, and you just face a wall.
  4. Chests that need to stay locked could function this way, too: They are invisible until you have discovered how to make them visible. Or appear from the Otherworld. Or they are disguised by a powerful illusion spell as a fire, or a bookcase, or something else that doesn’t look like a chest.
  5. Attempting to break such chests or doors might be known to trigger a one-shot kill, if you’re feeling particularly nasty.
  6. For less game-breaking events, like say, high-power items that you want to delay access to, but aren’t game essential, you could make breaking the chest containing them carry a high chance of destroying the contents.

I realize that to a lot of people, these are nitpicks, and in terms of mechanics, they are. But what makes RPGs great is their immersion. And “You Can’t Because The DM Said So” always breaks immersion. You can’t get away with such things in stories, and you shouldn’t get away with them in games. Not when you don’t have to.

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Science-Fiction Rant: Why I Hate Robots

Robots. I have never really understood why there is an obsession with stories about robots. As with fae, I understand the attraction of having robots exist in a story. What I don’t really get is stories about robots. Robots as the reason for the story. Yet many, many people love stories about robots. Isaac Asimov, arguably, built his career on an obsession with robots. I can’t think of any other piece of future technology — with the possible exception of spaceships — that has inspired such a wealth of stories about them. Can you imagine a whole subgenre of SF devoted to, say, laser guns? Or teleporters (apologies to Larry Niven)? Time machines, perhaps, are the most comparable. But the reason I can’t get into them is this: robots are either tools, or they are tools that imitate beings, they are designed to be beings, or they are accidental beings. And in all but one of these cases, stories about them seem to be unnecessary.

Robots Are Tools: These are the robots I have the least objection to in stories, because they’re the most obviously useful. We deal with this type of robot every day, whether we realize it or not. They’re not required to be shaped like humans, and in most cases, they shouldn’t be. But stories about this sort of robot are about as interesting as stories about screwdrivers or reciprocating saws.

Robots Are Tools That Imitate Beings: Now, on a certain level, I can see stories about this working, because it goes to a pretty profound question: is it important that emotions and souls “really” exist? If I create a robot that imitates a being well enough to fool human beings, does it matter that it is just a machine? On the physical level, of course, the answer is no. If I program a robot to feel rage, and then taunt it until it kills me, then I’m just as dead whether it “really” felt the rage or not. And the impact of these questions on humans can be very compelling: how much “love” can you give or receive from a machine?
But on what level can I possibly care about the machine, once it’s established that such a thing is merely an imitation? If that’s all it is, then you might as well try to get me to care about a reciprocating saw that you stuck a smiley face on.

Robots Are Designed To Be Beings: Again, on a certain level, stories like this make sense, especially if they’re focused on the ethics of creating life, and how the created being reacts to its own creation. Some of those are amazing. But ye gods, how many stories in this realm seem to postulate complete idiocy on the part of the creators. You get things like The Matrix Reanimated where humans seem to take joy in creating super-strong, humanoid robots specifically to be abused, complete with pain sensors and the ability to resent being controlled — and then are surprised when the robots revolt. Or more subtly, A.I., where the robot creator creates a human soul in a body that can’t eat, drink or grow. And then we’re supposed to be surprised that he’s created misery? Or Star Wars, where robots apparently have pain sensors for no definable reason. It’s hard to sympathize with the plight of creators who get slaughtered by robots that have been given every reason to slaughter them.

Robots Are Accidental Beings: Now, this is the one type of robot story that I can get behind: the idea that a machine might, given the right self-programming ability, “wake up” to true consciousness, to the surprise of its creators. In this case, it can’t be accused of being an idiot plot, because the humans are, in a sense, exploring the unknown, and they find something unexpected. That’s a reasonable risk. The humans might reasonably not even suspect that the risk exists. Excellent examples of this are William Gibson’s Neuromancer and Dan Simmons’s Hyperion cycle. But I notice that these stories rarely involve — because they do not need to — actual android-like robots. And why should they? By definition, no one was expecting this robot to take on attributes of human beings. With the exception of a few stories like Terminator 2, where the need for an android-like, accidental intelligence is fairly well justified, most stories of this sort smack of implausibility: “No, we never expected the computer we put in this humanoid body to develop humanoid attributes (wink, wink, nudge, nudge).”  Either that, or the story smacks more of fantasy than sci-fi, with computer + humanoid body being a voodoo-like spell that magically creates a consciousness because of it looks like a human and talks like a human, it will become a human.

Honestly, one of the best “robot” stories I’ve ever read falls in the cracks of about three of these, which is the excellent “Today I Am Paul” by Martin Shoemaker, where it’s made pretty deliberately ambiguous whether the titular caregiver-robot is a tool or an accidental being. This was an amazing story that gave a wonderful sense of the alienness of a robot consciousness, while still allowing us to care about it. And, most importantly for this story, a reason that it was a robot and nothing else.

 

The Hopeless Defense Of Susan Pevensie

If there is one thing I have learned in my life about arguments — and would that I had learned it sooner — it’s that there are some where you’re just not going to win. The issue has long since been decided before you ever entered the room. In fact, you’re not even witnessing an argument so much as the self-congratulatory talk after the argument has been decided against you. And you are as welcome in such venues as a drunken Rams player would be trying to get the Patriots’ defense to line up for one more play while Tom Brady is holding the Vince Lombardi trophy.

The only possible reason to keep arguing in such a case is if enough undecided observers are present that they might be swayed: Internet arguing is a spectator sport. But if the vast majority of spectators are Patriots fans, then you might as well not bother.

It’s a cheat, of course, because unlike sports games, there’s no timer. And the people involved in such arguments always want to appear as if they are fair-minded and brilliant, annihilating their opponents with superior knowledge, while in fact they are simply guarding their preferred outcome. To do this, they will characterize their opponents’ arguments in emotional terms and then admit the proper half of the facts into evidence while denying the other half. They will then congratulate themselves on their subtlety and insight, while mocking you. As I’m sure you’ve gathered, I got into the edges of one of these earlier this week and quickly showed myself the door.

The issue in this case was a defense of Susan Pevensie as the true hero/victim of the Narnia chronicles, because she was the only one who grew up and told the tyrant-king Aslan where to stick it. I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising that one could read Narnia this way: people have been reading their pet philosophies into works of literature since Blake and Shelley declared Satan to be the true hero of Paradise Lost.

I could tell I was on the wrong team when I made an observation that Susan Pevensie had given up on Narnia and was immediately told that this read of Susan’s character had made the respondent furious. This was also the first indication I had that there was even going to be an argument. It was immediately supplemented by others’ contentions that a) Susan had not given up on Narnia, but had rather been kicked out of Narnia for growing up and becoming a contemporary young woman and that b) Aslan was a God who didn’t want anyone in heaven who had grown up, and that c) she had gotten kicked out for discovering lipstick and stockings and courtship and marriage and d) because of that had her entire family taken away from her.

Of course, the only way you can get to this reading is to believe that everyone else in Narnia is a complete and utter liar who hates Susan from the outset. Such a thing may be true, I suppose, but it very much involves reading that into the text rather than reading any part of the text itself.

Firstly, any reading of the text will show you immediately that “growing up” was no bar to a final re-entry to Narnia/Heaven. Professor Kirke and Aunt Polly were both there, and had, by any reasonable standards, “grown up.” So were the Pevensie parents, who as far as we know, never had heard of Narnia. So the simple process of aging is by no means a bar to entry into Narnia. In fact, when Jill says “She was always a jolly sight too keen on being grown-up,” Polly (the old lady) responds, “Grown-up indeed. I wish she would grow up… her whole idea is to race on to the silliest time of one’s life as quick as she can and then stop there as long as she can.” Susan’s fault is not in growing up, but in embracing a false notion of what ‘growing up’ means. The only way this equates to becoming a contemporary young woman is if we admit that such women are defined by their acceptance a false notion of adulthood. Hardly a flattering notion

Did Aslan, then, bar Susan from re-entry to Narnia/Heaven simply for being a young woman who liked the idea of looking pretty and getting married? Again, not at all. Susan’s real fault is that she has decided that Narnia was merely a game. According to Eustace, when Narnia is brought up, she says, “Fancy your still thinking about all those funny games we used to play when we were children.” Susan simply no longer believed. And since she no longer believed, she could not be brought into Heaven, any more than could the dwarfs who would not be taken in. By contrast, the rest of the Friends of Narnia believed and took action on behalf of Narnia in the real world, by mounting an expedition to get the traveling rings.

Finally, did Aslan take away everyone from Susan? In a sense, I suppose He did. On the other hand, her absence from the rest was very much her choice, so I suppose that everyone was “taken away from her” in much the same sense that a high-school dropout by choice “loses all his friends” when they graduate and go off to college and the professional world and never contact him again. It’s more the result of his choices and the way life naturally works. Remember that Susan is the only one still “alive” at the end of the books. Everyone else is “dead.” The argument the defenders of Susan are making is that if Aslan really loved her He ought to have killed her along with everyone else, regardless of what she wanted! In a sense, all the characters got what they really wanted, and what they believed in. Just like Ebenezer Scrooge got all the money he wanted.

I really would like to believe that Susan, like Ebenezer Scrooge, got a second chance somewhere down the line. But to attempt a defense of her as she behaves in the seventh book is like defending Scrooge as he behaves in the beginning. It requires one to ignore all of the text explored above. It is replacing what is in the text with what is not in the text. It requires one to believe that Susan alone is honest, and her relatives, friends and God are judgmental liars. That there are people are eager to do this, of course, surprises me not at all. They are on Susan’s side, and not Aslan’s, and there is no changing their minds.

It’s probably a bad habit to tack a coda onto the end of the essay, but I will, lest a misunderstanding arise. Justifying the treatment of Susan Pevensie who made the decisions Lewis tells us she made, is completely different, of course, from saying “I don’t like that Lewis made her make those decisions.” That, of course, is completely a fair statement, and one I might even agree with. From an author/theologian’s point of view, I think Lewis was presenting the question of whether one can turn away from grace. Hos answer is that one can deliberately do so. Then who should have been his example of this? Peter the High King, Edmund the redeemed, and Lucy dearest to Aslan’s heart all would have been more heartbreaking and would have undercut the story more. Eustace and Jill were integral parts of the action in the novel Lewis had just finished. Polly, perhaps, would have been a less heart-breaking option, but also one of much lesser consequence to us. Susan, I sometimes feel, got elected by default.

Movie Review: Ralph Wrecks Himself

The following review contains spoilers for both Wreck-It Ralph movies.

So I thought that the original Wreck-It Ralph was one of the better children’s movies that came out that year. It was smart and funny, with a whole lot of game references that 80s and 90s kids could enjoy. The messages for the kids were on the whole, good (stand up for yourself and for others. Don’t be fooled by those who say they’re excluding and hurting you for your own good) but didn’t overwhelm a good story. And you know, central to that entire good story was that it was an uplifting story told by way of children’s comedy: the good guys do win in the end, and they win by laying it all on the line for one another: Ralph risks his life to save Vanellope, and Vanellope risks hers to save Ralph right back. It’s actually a pretty sophisticated story, too. Here are two people who actually hurt each other to save themselves: Vanellope steals Ralph’s medal, and Ralph wrecks Vanellope’s car to get it back. Their flaws are complementary, but similar. Vanellope steals the coin out of pure desperate selfishness, not caring whether it hurts Ralph or not. Ralph does care that wrecking the car hurts Vanellope, but he does it anyway, choosing to believe King Candy/Turbo in a way that conveniently gets him what he wants. They find out that relying on each other works. Using each other doesn’t.

In light of this, Ralph Wrecks The Internet was bland, message-heavy, and an incredible downer. Rather than a story centered around bringing people together, this story is about how to be a friend when life carries you apart. And while there is truth and value in such a story — even a story for kids — it’s just antithetical to the atmosphere of goofy fun rather than in support of it. We’ve seen Ralph and Vanellope become friends. We want to see them have an adventure together, not get almost ripped apart by it. Essentially, it’s a giant sermon about the dangers of codependence, and the object of that sermon is Ralph himself. Ralph, who doesn’t want to lose his first and oldest friend, is a bad person for this. And the way the story is written, yes, he has it coming for sabotaging Vanellope’s decisions. But we don;t want to see him be this way. It’s like he just backslides and becomes a lesser character rather than a greater one.

Moreover, the film very much makes Ralph the designated asshole of the plot. Its made clear in no uncertain terms that he has no claim on Vanellope’s life. Okay, granted. But despite the incredible work he puts into saving Vanellope’s game for her, it’s only barely hinted that just maybe Vanellope does owe Ralph the common courtesy of telling him that she’s not so sure she wants what he’s doing for her anymore. She lets him go through an enormous amount of pain and work on her behalf, and then, when all the hidden motives are revealed, only Ralph really gets censured for being a jerk. No doubt, he was a jerk. But Vanellope’s deception of omission was hardly less hurtful than Ralph’s.

In the end, the film was a letdown in which it felt like the audience was directed who to cheer for, instead of being given a real reason to cheer for them. And although the ending was happy in that Ralph and Vanellope still had a friendship, that friendship was inevitably diminished, and the characters were weakened, not strengthened by it. They both lost. And I felt like the audience lost, too.

Movie Reviews Far Too Late: The Road Warrior

I decided the other week to fill in one of the holes in my filmography and watch The Road Warrior, which I somehow missed seeing. I feel like I missed a few classic movies in the following manner: Too young to see it when it came out (I was 8 in 1981), too many other things to see to bother watching it when I was a teen, and it seemed old, trashy  and hard to get when I grew up. Thank you public library!

Now I saw Mad Max: Fury Road in theaters and absolutely loved it. It was much, much better than I had expected it to be, and watching The Road Warrior it was obvious that the director had seen and loved it, too. This was the film to which Fury Road was the homage. I mean the parallels between Immortan Joe and The Humungus, and the chase of the big rig are all too obvious to be worth re-hashing. In general, I feel that Fury Road did a wonderful job of staying true to the feel of its source while also elevating it to heights of spectacle and madness that just weren’t possible in 1981.

The one thing that really bothers me about The Road Warrior, though is that I felt the ending suffered from a terrible case of anticlimax, almost as though the writer really could not tell whether Lord Humungus or Wez was supposed to be the “real” antagonist for Max. It seems obvious that the roles were originally envisioned in such a fashion as to be analogous to Darth Vader’s and the Emperor’s relationship to Luke, in that Darth Vader was to be the more personal antagonist, with the Emperor being the ultimate power. In that light, it makes sense that Luke must defeat (not kill) Darth Vader first in order to ultimately defeat (again, not kill) the Emperor.

But in The Road Warrior it is curious that the ultimate death of Humungus happens so quickly. It makes sense, in that Mad Max turns the tanker around and Humungus doesn’t know about (blind hills can be dangerous, kids!) But the fact that timing such a collision would be almost impossible, and that there is further no evidence in the film that Max planned it, really made it feel like the director simply ordained that Max would win. Max is driving a rig, Humungus a car, and Humungus dies. Very unlike the death of Immortan Joe, who is killed more or less in hand-to-hand combat. Killed by a trick with a chain and a car, yes. But killed much more by planned physical violence. Humungus’s death is pretty much an accident. Having Wez die in the same accident — while distracting Max on top of it — only amplifies the anticlimax. The whole thing left me feeling unsatisfied.

I’d love to hear anyone else’s take on it. What was here that I missed?

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 must 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.