Worlds: Stupid Sci-Fi Film Tricks, The Expanse Edition

SPOILER ALERT for Season 1 of The Expanse if it’s on your “to watch” list.

Are you effing kidding me, The Expanse? I mean, are you effing kidding me?

Here we have a show that most people I know in SF have been raving about, I mean, absolutely raving about for the last couple of years. So I finally decided to use my Amazon Free Prime trial and binge-watch a few episodes.

And it looks good. Man does it look good. Really, the only problem I have with it from a science perspective is I think that it VASTLY underestimates what happens to things and people when a hole is knocked into an Earth-pressure cabin in hard vacuum, but I’m pretty willing to let that slide, on the large scale of things. That’s like complaining about lasers being visible in space combat. Of course they wouldn’t be, but the Rule Of Cool, well, rules.

So, for the first six episodes, I just sat back and enjoyed the SFX, the dialogue, the action, and the whole ride. So, the Earth UN controls Ceres, capital of the Asteroid Belt, by rationing its air and water. Mars, an independent state, also hungers to control Ceres, and the Belters just want to breathe and drink and not die. There’s a Free the Belt movement, headed up by a freedom-fighter/terrorist organization called the OPA, and of course Earth Cops on Ceres try to keep these terrorists down.
As our story opens, one of our protagonists is an Earth Cop chasing an Earth heiress who sympathized with the OPA and who disappeared under mysterious circumstances. We find she has something to do with a freighter set up as bait to lure in an innocent rescue ship that is then attacked by parties unknown with evidence pointing to Mars, apparently with the goal of starting a war. Earth Cop finds more and more evidence tying missing heiress to a raid on a supersecret Martian research base.

And then, episode 7. Oh, gods….

So Earth Cop figures out that heiress was an agent of the OPA Maximum Leader, and assembles the evidence, bringing it straight to his boss… who promptly wipes his files, revokes his access codes and fires him. He figures out she’s in Maximum Leader’s pocket, and as he storms out, the camera focuses in on boss’s neck, where she is sporting an OPA tattoo.

Get that? The OPA’s paid agent, the chief of the Earth Cops in the Belt, is wearing a terrorist tattoo in plain sight, advertising her allegiance. Among detectives. And we’re supposed to believe that somehow, no one noticed this. I mean, this is like a U.S. Naval officer showing up for duty on his ballistic missile submarine in 1985 sporting a hammer-and-sickle tattoo on his wrist. You think someone might ask questions?

And the hell of it is, it’s completely unnecessary. I mean, I believed she could have been a mole. But no one in the solar system would be such a stupid mole and survive more than a month. It drives me nuts when filmmakers feel obligated to underline visually what’s happening for us as though we are too dumb to understand words and to imagine likely consequences of such actions. Stop it.

From Somewhere In Orbit

 

The Word: The Dark Side Of The Force

This blog post was written for the online magazine Sci Phi Journal.

Like so many of my generation – which I still prefer to call the Children of the Eighties – Star Wars was a great part of my introduction to science-fiction. I grew up adoring it, practically worshiping it. Surely nothing could be so good as Star Wars. And in a sense, I was right: Star Wars became a movie so iconic that, while it could be imitated, it could not be directly borrowed from. After Star Wars, who would dare to use lightsabers (or forceblades, or laser swords) seriously? After Star Wars, who could possibly consider using any power that would correspond to The Force?

Of course, besides the fact that it would be a shameless rip-off, there are other reasons why no one but George Lucas would use a concept like The Force. It was so ill-defined that it could defensibly do just about anything. It was the ultimate deus ex machina, and only the fact that the writers had the sense to use it somewhat sparingly saved the movies at all from their most defining feature.

But the two worst things about Star Wars’ portrayal of The Force are ones that I rarely hear discussed. Firstly, it was a great example of that cardinal sin of storytelling: Telling, Not Showing. While it certainly makes sense for Luke’s use of the Force to be limited in the first Star Wars movie, it certainly doesn’t make much sense for Obi-Wan not to show him what the Force can do, any more than it makes sense for Obi-Wan and Darth Vader to fail to use the Force during their combat. (Yes, I realize that the primary reason for this was because Lucas himself had obviously not figured out what he wanted the Force to be capable of, yet. In which case, it’s bad worldbuilding). Secondly, it missed a great opportunity to build characters with the depth necessary to address truly hard questions about the nature of power and its ability to corrupt.

Strangely enough, this is one of the few things that the prequels do just a little bit better than the original trilogy does. In Attack of the Clones, we get a clear glimpse of what it can mean to turn to the Dark Side of the Force and why that might be attractive. In trying to save his mother, Anakin Skywalker lashes out in anger and slaughters the Sand People, down to the women and children. He shows no mercy in doing so, and he regrets it later. In The Empire Strikes Back, Yoda warns Luke that “once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny,” but we never see that in Luke. Instead, he is told to take it on faith that the Light Side of the Force will be better served if he abandons his friends to Darth Vader, which he understandably resists.

Luke is never seriously tempted to join the Dark Side. To question the Light Side, yes. But he is never really shown to have any desire to seize the Force for any evil purpose, as Anakin did. And the Dark Side’s mastery of Anakin Skywalker begins with a tactic that is familiar to many terrorist organizations and criminal gangs: the new initiate is required to kill. Ideally he is required to kill a non-combatant in the name of the group’s ideals. This tactic works for two reasons: firstly, it puts the initiate on the wrong side of the law. He cannot go back without facing serious penalties. Secondly, and far more seriously, the initiate can never turn his back on the group without admitting to himself that he is a murderer. The only way to defend himself from that is to profess that the murder was really a virtuous act. And this, if true, can only lead to more “virtuous acts.” More murder. More terror.

Another excellent portrayal of the Dark Side’s power was that done by Kevin J. Anderson with his character Kyp Durron, who comes to be able to use the Force directly through surges of fear and anger to free himself from captivity. Unguided by any master, he discovers that fear, anger and aggression make him powerful, and underline the truth of Yoda’s claim that the Dark Side is “quicker, easier, more seductive.” And of course, it is, because it always has been.

The Force is on one hand a tame god. It obeys the will of the user. But on the other hand, it is a metaphor for that most challenging of theological concepts: free will. And like any person who discovers that his or her anger and fear can be fashioned into a weapon to bend and manipulate others, the temptation to continue using it becomes a sword sharp as a lightsaber, unsafe to hold from any angle. If you stop using it, those you threaten will be encouraged to strike back (most likely for the same reasons you struck them in the first place). And even if they do not, you will be left to face the guilt and will be forced to confess that your actions were wrong from the outset. Far easier, then to find any excuse to keep using the dark power, always for the noblest of goals. But any Star Wars fan – and far more sadly, any history student – knows where that leads. It leads to killing children to save the thing you love, and then passing it off as a difference in “point of view.” To, in the words of a better character, Aral Vorkosigan, do terrible things in the present to avoid false terrors in the future. We do not have to be Jedi to be tempted by the Dark Side. It is in all of us.

Childishness’s End, Please

Sunday is Theology Day here at my blog! Here’s another of my columns from The Mote in God’s “I” that I did for SciPhi Journal, may it rest in peace.

We’ve all had that moment of vindication and excitement when the news comes through that finally – finally! – one of our favorite novels (or series) are going to be translated to the screen. Big screen, small screen, it makes little difference. You’re going to see it on the screen!

That wasn’t at all the sensation I had upon learning that the SyFy channel was going to create a television series based on Arthur C. Clarke’s classic novel, Childhood’s End. Instead, my initial reaction was, to paraphrase Douglas Adams, that this series is going to fly in precisely the same way that bricks don’t. Obviously it’s too early to know whether I’m going to be right about that. I have not watched it. And the main reason for that is because I remember Childhood’s End as one of the most depressing books I’ve ever read. It’s the atheist equivalent of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe , where the great triumph at the end of the work is not the defeat of death, but its celebration. Clarke’s atheism and disdain for religion was legendary during his life, and it is never more on display than here. So I find it very curious that such a great author and thinker seems to have been so trapped by religion. Clarke’s contemporary, the great Robert Heinlein, said in his novel Time Enough For Love,Men rarely (if ever) manage to dream up a god superior to themselves. Most gods have the manners and morals of a spoiled child.” Obviously, I disagree. But it strikes me that if Clarke is any example of the improvement an atheist has to offer, then the atheists still have a ways to go before they equal, let alone surpass, their theistic brothers.

The novel truly begins about five years after the Overlords have begun their “benevolent” rule over Earth. It opens with a protest against that rule, led by an ex-clergyman named Wainwright, who presents a petition to Stormgren, the Secretary-General of the UN. Wainwright’s stated objection to the Overlords’ forced Federation of Earth is that humans have lost the “freedom to control our own lives, under God’s guidance.”

This is the only mention of God during the entire exchange, except for Stormgren’s contention that many religious leaders support the Overlords. Yet Stormgren takes this statement of Wainwright’s as proof that “Basically, the conflict is a religious one, however much it may be disguised.” Later, the Overlord administrator Karellen agrees. “You know why Wainwright and his kind fear me, don’t you? You will find men like him in all the world’s religions. They know we represent reason and science, and, however confident they may be in their beliefs, they fear that we will overthrow their gods.”

The whole conflict as presented by Clarke is delicious in its irony: atheists, of all people, ought to believe in the importance of free will in the face of overwhelming authority and force (unless they are determinists who insist free will is an illusion). Conversely, it is people of faith who ought to know better than to demand freedom to live their own lives. Human freedom is sharply limited by God. Clarke is doing a bit of pop psychology here which is very popular at the moment: “It doesn’t matter what you say, you Opponent Of My Goals. Your real motivation is Horribleness, because you are one of Them!

Well, there’s a pop psychology term for that, and it’s called projection. Stormgren (a stand-in for Clarke) believes that “security, peace and prosperity” are the ultimate achievements of humankind because, in Clarke’s world, people who respect science are atheists, and science produces the desirable results. Therefore, anyone who does not desire those results must be motivated by their contempt for science, i.e. religion. It is further ironic that Wainwright, near the end of the interview bursts out with the line, “I do not know which we resent more – Karellen’s omnipotence, or his secrecy. If he has nothing to hide, why will he never reveal himself? Next time you speak with the Supervisor, Mr. Stormgren, ask him that!”

It is the cry of the frustrated atheist, or the doubting believer, who does not trust God to be benevolent. If he is there, why the mystery? Why does God not show Himself? And how can we trust Him with the power? Wainright turns that cry upon Karellen, who stands in loco Dei, or more accurately, in loco angelorum, moving in mysterious ways as ordered by even more mysterious masters. Of course, it was Arthur C. Clarke that is famous for his Third Law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology would be indistinguishable from magic.” It is therefore not, perhaps, surprising that the aliens mastering such technology would be indistinguishable from gods. But as Karellen himself observes (and as far too many of us have forgotten, in our urge to coexist at the price of, if necessary, integrity) “all the world’s religions cannot be right.” It is of course also true that “all opinions about the nature of God cannot be right.” And atheism’s opinion – that God’s nature is nonexistent – is just as vulnerable to that observation as that of any religion.

Voltaire famously remarked that if God did not exist, it would have been necessary to invent him. The context of that remark, which is less famous, makes it clear that Voltaire believed that religion served a purpose whether it was true or not. And even Clarke seems to tacitly admit this. In the presence of the Overlords’ revelation, human art and science dry up. In Utopia, there are artists’ colonies, but no great works of art.

Which brings up an interesting point: is it not rather strange that Clarke, openly scornful of religion, cannot simply let the dead dog lie? He brings in aliens with godlike technology, including a time-camera that proves that none of the world’s faiths are correct, and yet, when the secret of the Overlords is revealed, it turns out that even the godlike Overlords do, in fact, have a god of their own: the Overmind. The Overlords are its chosen people. They do not dare disobey it. It has communicated its needs to them, as each of the “child” races (of which man is one) approaches its tipping point in its parapsychological evolution, so that the Overlords can be there, helping the new race join with the pantheistic Overmind “God.”

Mr. Clarke, in all his rejection of the God of Abraham, has not displaced Him, but merely replaced Him with a New Monotheism in which evolution is the guiding principle. A Creator God is superstitious and unscientific, but an Evolved God is supposed to be enlightened, I suppose, because Science. The Overmind-God has its angels (which look like demons, because humanity detected their coming parapsychically across time itself)* and its superstitious rituals which work as badly as prayer ever did. The humans first contact the Overmind via Ouija board, for Ghu’s sake!

Of course, the tragic heroes of the story are not mankind (except for the parents who see their children grow up, not as adult humans, but as strange and alien creatures) but the Overlords, who are enslaved to this Overmind, doing its bidding, but forever denied the “grace” of merging with it. The Overmind is dangerous. It cares for nothing but its own ends. It openly uses the Overlords, and it is implied that defying it is something they “dare not” do. If they will not serve, they will be destroyed. The novel closes on Karellen, dwelling in racial self-pity: “They would serve the Overmind because they had no choice, but even in that service, they would not lose their souls.”

But what souls? According to Clarke, they have none! Not even the “evolved souls” that humanity’s children develop. The only way for Clarke to have a tragedy is to postulate a quality that he has spent the novel (and apparently, would spend his life) denying exists. Far from creating a God superior to humankind, Clarke creates one that is far inferior to the God of the Torah, the Bible, and the Qur’an. He does it by lobotomizing his God. Clarke’s Overmind possesses, apparently, no wrath, no love, no care for its fellow-creatures, except as they serve to increase itself. It is capable of almost everything… except love. Except noticing that which is beneath it. Even the Overlords are better “gods” than that, for they ban animal cruelty on Earth. But above them is indeed a Being of Satanic self-interest, which simply refuses to care whether it annihilates planets on a whim. Humanity may have emerged from childhood, in Clarke’s novel, but Clarke’s vision has not emerged from a childishness that makes only a poor copy of a Creator that, whether true or not, is much better imagined in the world’s faiths.

*this was one of the more absurd and chauvinistic bits in the novel, of course. Humanity somehow sensed the Overlords in the future as the architects of its doom as a physical species, but I guess only Christian monks and scribes got the memo? See? Christianity IS the best religion, Q.E.D.! 

I Have No Enemies…

There’s an old story about Josef Stalin that alleges that the Communist leader and mass murderer called for a priest on his deathbed. Seeing as Stalin had been a terror to the Church, the priest tasked with this duty was frightened, but determined to tell the truth. In a shaking voice, he told Stalin that he must forgive his enemies. To his surprise, the dictator smiled and said, “That will be quite unnecessary, Father. I have no enemies.” Finding this impossible to believe, the priest summoned his courage and asked how that was possible. Stalin replied, “I’ve had them all executed.”

I watched the James Bond film, SPECTRE last night. It was pretty much a uniformly awful movie, with a predictable plot and nothing in it that hasn’t been done before and better by earlier Bond movies, notably the superb From Russia With Love, which the screenwriter had obviously seen approximately 472 times, but had failed to understand.

One of the worst features of the film was its depressing predictability: James comes home to find that “C” a new politician, is considering dropping the 00 program entirely in favor of electronic assets. It is clear within 5 minutes of his appearance that C is either the ultimate bad guy of the film, or in direct cahoots with him, and C is indeed unmasked as a traitor in the service of Blofeld (whose motivation was apparently to dominate the world because he was jealous that he had to share a few hours of his daddy’s attention with James when they were both teenagers, which makes him the most ridiculous temper-tantrum thrower of a world-dominating villain since Anakin Skywalker in Episode II, but I digress).

The reason I bring it up is because it really highlights the feature of what seems like a lot of movies these days: anyone troubling the hero must be the worst villain imaginable. It seems as if it is no longer possible for the hero to be saddled with someone who is (even temporarily) perhaps an asshole, but on the same side. For C to consider dismantling the 00 program, he does not have to be a traitor. He can still be a problem James has to solve, of course. In fact, he’s a much more challenging problem if he is loyal, because then James can’t simply kill him.

Movies weren’t always this way. As recently as Pirates of the Caribbean it was perfectly possible for the heroes to have an opponent, in this case, Captain Norrington, who are kind of assholes and who have to be circumvented, but who are, when it comes down to it, on the same side against the pirate-zombies and who are reasonably brave and not traitors.

One of the most extreme examples of the decline in this sort of thing is the mockumentary CSA: The Confederate States of America. A much better film than SPECTRE, it imagines a Ken Burns-style alternate history in which the United States was defeated and wholly assimilated into the Confederate States in a short Civil War, after which slavery was legal up to the present day. That this is a dystopia is obvious, but the screenwriters take it to such extremes as to imagine the United States being sympathetic to Hitler in the 1930s while at the same time going to war with Japan in the 1940s. How this bit of political gymnastics works out is never explained. The film even goes so far as to have the Confederate States sneak attack the Imperial Japanese Navy in Tokyo Bay on December 7th, 1941.

You can see what they have done here: the Confederate States of 1941 must not only be evil, (as, granted, they surely would have been), they must be so evil that they cannot experience the injustice of a sneak attack themselves. They are literally incapable of being wronged. If the Japanese had launched the war as they did historically, and bombed a Confederate fleet at Pearl Harbor, then we might, horror of horrors, be forced to imagine that something even worse than a Confederacy might exist. Like people who might, say, perpetrate the Rape of Nanking, which of course, the Japanese did.

I see in these films a symptom of something I find to be ugly and dangerous. The idea that being challenged in our preconceptions and beliefs about what is best (or worst) is equivalent to an attack that must be met with lethal force and no shred of mercy. And that is indeed frightening.

From Somewhere In Orbit

The Last Jedi: My Thoughts (Not That You Asked)

Introduction: I’ve been very grateful to everyone who has been thoughtful enough to avoid spoilers for the past month, or at least been thoughtful enough to warn me so that I wouldn’t read spoilers. Because of that, walking into the theater today, I was only aware of one major plot event in the movie, and very much appreciated that. Also, since having kids, I’ve gotten a new perspective on how impossible it can be to see a hot new movie within a reasonable amount of time, so am trying to be extra sensitive to those who may STILL be trying to avoid spoilers. Okay, that should fill up the preview for Facebook: ON TO THE SPOILERS!!!

The Good Stuff: I’m going to open up by saying that overall, I thought the good in this movie far outweighed the bad. I think Mark Hamill rose to heights of acting I’ve not previously seen from him. The rest of the cast likewise did well, but being a writer and not a drama geek anymore, I’m going to mostly discuss the writing.

I thought this film may have done more than any other to show what a Jedi on the cusp of “turning” to the Dark or Light really looks like in the complex relationship between Kylo and Rey. There was an ambiguity portrayed in these characters’ actions that explored how someone may reject a specific evil, and yet refuse to embrace virtue. There was a sense that Rey really was tempted by Kylo’s offer, not of power, but of belonging, whereas I never got the sense that Luke was ever truly tempted by Darth Vader as a father. Luke already had too strong sense of identity as Vader’s adversary for that.

I liked that there was no great secret behind Rey’s parentage, and the wound that this dealt her as she came to terms with that. I liked the backstory that filled in the reason Luke “lost” Ben Solo, and the tension that created with Rey.

I also really liked that Luke Skywalker correctly cut down the Jedi Council as a collective failure that allowed the Empire to seize power. I wish he’d turned some of that insight onto Yoda.

I very much liked that Supreme Leader Snoke had guards that actually seemed to be competent. I liked a little less that Kylo Ren, whom we saw stopping blaster bolts in Ep. VII, seems not to have considered directly using the Force a bit more in that fight.

I have to admire the visual homages to Empire and Jedi that managed not to feel nearly as much like a retread of those films as The Force Awakens did of New Hope. I am stunned and delighted that they had the guts to fit an homage to Hardware Wars in there.

The Bad Stuff: As far as the discussion that I am vaguely aware of regarding Vice-Admiral Holdo and her competence, I do think that Holdo’s command style was awfully opaque. Why, after all, not tell the people on her own ship what was going on, to give them hope? On the other hand, an opaque command style really doesn’t justify a subordinate relieving her of command. Poe Dameron is a mutinous idiot, and his and Finn’s and Rose’s actions led directly to the death of what appeared to be something like 2/3 of the Rebels Holdo planned to save. And him demanding to know what was going on right after her assumption of command and while she is obviously busy was just asinine.

One of my biggest peeves with the movie is the whole “no one can track anything through hyperspace” plot point. In all seriousness, this has ALWAYS been possible in Star Wars, from the very first: The Empire follows the Millennium Falcon through hyperspace to get to the Rebel Base. And before anyone says “But that’s because they put a homing beacon on their ship!” Uh-uh. Bullshit. Leia says “They’re tracking us.” Makes no mention of how. And if everyone knew it had to be a homing beacon, Hand and Chewie could at least have searched for one. Moreover, if everyone knew that the only way to track ships through hyperspace was by means of homing beacons, someone aboard that Rebel flagship should have said “Great Maker! Some spy has planted a homing beacon aboard our ship!” Not “Wow! The First Order must have just developed a whole new order of technology that-a-stormtrooper-and-a-maintenance-tech-can-deduce-must-be-based-on-the-same-principles-of-any-active-tracking-and-if-we-talk-really-fast-we-can-slide-weaklogicbytheaudienceandscream IT MUST BE ONLY ON THE LEAD SHIP SO WE CAN MOUNT A HOPELESS COMMANDO RAID ON THAT ONE WEAK POINT ‘CAUSE WE’RE REBELS THAT’S HOW WE ROLL!!”
Oh, and yeah, the whole argument that no one’s ever tracked anyone through hyperspace is also bullshit because in Jedi Han and Leia read Imperial sensors that were tracking the Rebel armada before it emerged from hyperspace. So there’s that.

This next one pains me to say, but there’s no way around it: I loved that someone finally decided to use a hyperspace ram on the big screen. That was an epic moment. Except…

…if that was possible and so easy to think of, why did the Rebels not use it during the Battle of Endor when they seemed sure to lose? Three or four hyperspace lances through a Death Star would have ruined the Emperor’s whole day, and would probably have been a net gain of ships for the Alliance besides.

The Dumb: Yoda has looked less wise with each passing movie. I really wanted Luke to rip into him. Aside from the line about the importance of passing on our failures to our students (which was poignant and true), Yoda came off as a cheap trick that weakened Luke’s character.

Oh, and along the lines of idiotic command decisions, Leia has the gall to slap Poe for not aborting in the middle of his attack run and endangering the bombers? Why the hell did she not just order them to abort herself and make Poe’s attack run moot?

And speaking of idiocy, the Empire has still not learned that you can’t shoot fighters down with anything but other fighters? That lesson should be well over two decades old.

I’m sorry, but Leia saving herself from the vacuum of space with the Force was dumb. Even dumber was them opening the door for her and not losing the whole corridor and themselves to decompression.

Okay, that’s it for now. All my judgments are, of course, right and true and utterly immune to criticism. Unless I think of something else later. Jump in, the argument’s fine!