Saturday, September 29, 2018

Holocene Detective Fiction

Spoiler alert: Rahan knows that one can shoot things with a reed!


Rahan does indeed also know that one can make music using a reed. (In fact, he invented the flute.) Rahan knows many, many things. Rahan always wants to know more things. Thus when Rahan encounters a suspiciously large tribe ruled by an omnipotent supreme leader, Rahan investigates said lethally godlike powers.
Come, ivory knife, the prehistoric game is afoot!

Now, you know Le Chef Des Chefs is a totes awesomesauce story because it's got an arena fight against three different kinds of panthers... and that's not even the climax! The A-plot revolves around Big Chief Cue-Ball's supernatural ability to call death on his victims from afar through no visible means (spears, arrows, rocks-fall-everybody-dies, etc.) from the safety of his shadowed hut. Rahan, upon performing a quick post-mortem of one of the victims, discovers a tiny plant spine embedded in his skin. When he finally works his way up to the boss battle above, he puts two and *this-many-fingers* together at the sight of the chief's blowgun, a very surreptitious means of killing unfamiliar to his tribe. That thar be sum fine dee-ducin' yo.

Every time I go back to re-read some issue of Rahan, I rediscover amusing details. Lecureux Sr.'s imagination in creating tension and mystery for stone-age plots is admirable, but as I've grown older I've especially gained an appreciation for Andre Cheret's artistic skill. Tiny details like the chief's eeee-veel pointed fingernails and wriggly quavering untrustworthy speech bubbles didn't register consciously to me at eight years old. Neither did the fact that they totally cheaped out on coloring Rahan's skin in that first panel (check it against the background sky gradient) and yet it still works in as far as he's supposed to be back-lit and shadowed. Then there's the red-shifted third panel, the moment of revelation, the split-second when the dramatic tension breaks, aided by the chief's speech bubble suddenly reverting to serious, standard form (when the villain cuts his monologue short, look out!) and by the speed lines suggesting he's lifting the reed up suspiciously quickly. Without belaboring every such detail, handing us the sensory data by which Rahan suddenly solves the case went a long way toward putting young readers in the hero's shoes.

Caveman detective fiction. Not the most predictable genre mash-up. Not very frequent in Rahan either. Most issues of the comic tended toward co-op PvE rather than PvP encounters. Yet once in a while Rahan had to unveil some evil oppressive autocrat's means of deceiving his tribe into obedience or sleuth his way through a good old-fashioned stone-age murder mystery. Mystery is itself gradually becoming a historical genre. Modern crime solving is highly technical and not very dramatic, thus audience-unfriendly on two fronts. So, many authors stick to Agatha Christie's 1950s or interwar settings, before the panopticon had turned all of London into a voyeur's paradise. Victorian England (or the Victorian anglophone world) is of course another favorite as the setting for our prototypical fiction of sleuthery, Sherlock Holmes.

So I got to wondering how many historical detective fictions I'd personally encountered. After all, murder most foul adds spice to any setting, and even though neither murder mysteries nor period pieces are my "thing" it's amazing what you run into in the course of perusing good art.

Stone age: Rahan
Medieval: Cadfael
Renaissance: The Name of the Rose (technically set pre-Renaissance, but its tone definitely matches)
Victorian / Edwardian: more than I care to recall.

Now, it strikes me that I'm missing vast swathes of history in between there. Why have I never read/watched/comicked a modern detective story set in Ancient Rome, for instance? Wikipedia lists quite a few and I'm certainly not averse to reading about Vestals gladiusing Praetorians or what-not. Are all those books just crap, beneath notice? Same goes for Ancient Egypt. It's a theocracy in a half-desert, half-swamp environment. You'd think the intrigue and scene-setting would write themselves. Plus, everybody's got kohl-blackened villainous eyes! Or what about the Enlightenment Age? Leyden jars, astronomical ellipses, private collections of exotic fauna, all that pre-steam steampunk has got to make for a captivating backdrop. Where's all my musket-murder mysteries at?

Being mainly a science fiction fan, I have to note the relative scarcity of futuristic mysteries as well. Isaac Asimov took a stab at it with some of his Robot stories. Aside from that, the mystery of future technology and the mystery of Mystery might seem redundant. Unveiling two things at once is overkill and overwork. Why blow two wads on one manuscript when you can split the concept up and sell two books? Amirite, writers? Plus, it's hard enough getting the technical know-how to dream up hard science gimmicks without also failing to imagine realistic uses for them. The mystery genre can't even keep up with the possibilities of cellphones, much less Johnny Mnemonic implants and hyperspace quantanets.

Paradoxically, setting anything during the better studied historical periods runs into the same caveat. Three pages into your civis romanus murder mystery you'll have three dozen geeks writing you angry e-mails for having totally mis-represented the piss-boiling process for wool-padded Legionnaire leather armor. Write Carolus Linnaeus into your story and you'll get half the botanists in the world sending you angry lilies. Don't even dare touch Babylonian prostitutes. (No, really. You don't know where they've been. (Babylon, maybe?))

It does seem like pre-historic whodunits hit upon a winning formula: each can hinge on simple social systems and some modus operandi utterly mundane by today's standards (like blowguns) but unknown to Caveman Grog. Other than that, maybe one can take refuge in obscurity. Given that murder most foul can freshen anything, make your setting anything. Set it in 1200s Teutonic Estonia or Post-Roman Moravia or some lowland backwater of the Incan Empire in the 1400s. You'll have much fewer expert sources to read. All five people who give a shit about the topic will probably just be too glad to see it get some attention to really quibble over details. As for everyone else, let them come for the poisoned darts and stay for the quaint trivia.

Just provide us with some speed lines and speech bubble shifts to help us keep up in unfamiliar terrain.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Calling All Plot Devices!

"Everybody, everybody just wanna fall in love
Everybody, everybody just wanna play the lead, play the lead, play the lead"

Metric - Sick Muse


For the sake of argument, let's distinguish two kids of storytelling:
The first (and by far more popular) is empathetic and character-driven.
The second is so plot-driven as to efface characters.

Science Fiction frequently adopts this second philosophy, concerning itself with ideas, with world-building, and relegating characters (if any) to the status of needles on various dials, useful only in illustrating grander themes. I can't be the first to remark that even though Keanu Reeves' wooden emoting has condemned him as a second-rate actor in general, it made him an excellent SciFi protagonist. It's not all about him, so less of him is required. You can find this philosophy at its strongest in some future history novels like Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men or Asimov's first Foundation book. To whatever extent one might (generously) classify Star Wars as SF, much of the first movie's draw also hinged on panoramic scenes and one-shot characters quickly swept under the rug. It attempted to endear us to its characters and failed miserably for the most part through its faded old stock mooks and hero's journey. What really captivated viewers were the vagaries of the Force, the imagined feel of a lightsaber in one's hand and panoramic views of the alien-filled cantina or interstellar dogfights. We hero-worshiped Kirk or Picard much less than we imagined ourselves Trekking among the Stars.

To a large extent, though, depersonalized world-building also underscores the success of Tolkien's Middle-Earth. We remember Frodo and Gollum and all the others, sure, but Tolkien achieved more by rendering a fairytale world in itself tangible and immersive. Even after we reach the end of the War of the Ring, we remember Imladris and Khazad-Dum, Minas Morgul and Esgaroth. We wonder about the Iron Hills and the Beornings and imagine deep-sea diving for Numenorean artifacts. The Lord of the Rings is a beautiful story in itself, but it's The Silmarillion and Middle-Earth as a whole, the world around the characters, which allow us to imagine a thousand more tales with our own woven between them. Harry Potter is all about that annoying little attention whore with the dashing scar on his forehead. It appeals to narcissists. Frodo Baggins is about more than Frodo Baggins.

Dungeons and Dragons aped Tolkien's expansive prototypical modern escapist vision of a medieval fantasy world. When games became digitized, most of their creators (those old 1980s computer nerds) had been weaned on both D&D and LotR. Their creations reflected this, often through mind-numbing repetition of high fantasy tropes but sometimes managing to retain that wide focus of creating virtual worlds and not just individual adventures. As I never get tired of repeating, a good virtual world doesn't make you feel big about yourself; it makes you feel small and lost. Unfortunately by the time graphical MMOs became viable, online games were already struggling to expand their customer base to the mass market, and that meant marketing to stupidity. It meant marketing to those who fast-forwarded the LotR movies past Tolkien's maps to Liv Tyler's and Orlando Bloom's fan service.

Thus, we have yet to see a true MMO. Most claiming the title have instead been WoW-clones, catering entirely to individual self-aggrandizement through loot acquisition. Their interface offers a constant barrage of undeserved praise to the player for every single "kill ten rats" quest completion or achievement unlock. That same interface gives no announcements as to what's going on in the world at large, what towns have been conquered, what armies are gathering, what goods are in high demand... because we all know that nothing whatsoever is going on in the game world at large. Nothing ever changes. They are entirely focused on telling the tale of the player character, making the you in the chair fall in love with the you on screen. This rapidly grows farcical when you consider that all those microtransacted status symbols players struggle so hard to acquire will go unnoticed. All others around you are, after all, gazing enraptured at their own navels. A world of peacocks with no pea-hens. Congratulations, you looted the hat of +5nuisance. Now can you tell me the names of all the other players you've seen wearing one? Do you think they know yours? Wanna buy some Venusian real estate?

"You said 'look at me' and looked away"

A true persistent virtual world game, a true MMO, cannot thrive on a playerbase of such brain-dead genetic filth. To be part of a player-driven world is to acknowledge the necessity of your insignificance, the simple arithmetic that sharing a world with ten thousand others will mean having your importance diminished ten thousand fold. Any greater expectations must needs get dashed. Such a game needs to send the right message to the right customers. If it is to be centered on the over-arching story of the game world then it needs a new kind of storytelling, a future history of the world to be written by the players, not a biography. If most games exist only to build up and validate the player, then an MMO will have to reverse this expectation. The player must exist only to build up the game world. Validation must be contingent on one's impact on the interconnected web of other players.

Give players the means to build up their characters and personal possessions, sure. Give them personalized loot they can name, give them homesteads and bank accounts. But the game interface should always bring the player's attention back to the conflicts and crises of the world at large. Remind them at every turn that they are only pieces in a strategy game. Give them exchange rates to track for harvestable resources. Give them access to the political situation in their corner of the world and get them voting for governors. Let them know whenever a fort is taken or lost, whenever a star gate powers up or some world event is advanced. Display information not about infamous individuals, but about towns or starbases. Publicly display how much each settlement raked in as taxes, its most traded goods, its casualty rats, etc. Do away with the "LEVEL UP" pop-up ego-boosters or top kill leaderboards and instead keep everyone's attention riveted always on the larger contest of which they're a part. Congratulate them for taking part in a faction or clan victory, not for killing ten rats - unless the ten rats somehow further the greater good. If most games' focus is the character sheet, a true MMO's should be the world map. Everything should refer back to it.

As a last point, it can't be an accident that the games which come closest to such a player-driven world like EVE-Online or Planetside have also tended to at least make some minimal show of a Science Fiction setting. A fantasy world is top-down, driven by divine dictates and divine favor, by personal specialness. Science Fiction is a bottom up enterprise, a climb up a tech tree.

Such aesthetics prompt player expectations. Potential customers drawn in by the promise of being The Chosen One will rage-quit when they discover themselves to be mere redshirts. Or they'll demand the world be wrecked to fit their infantile neediness. The setting, interface, tutorials, everything which creates an impression on the player needs to create the right impression, that of losing oneself in a grandiose world and / or conflict. The customers you need to entice into a true MMO are those comfortable with the thought of being mere plot devices and not fated heroes. Don't market to Harry Potter fans. Market to Dune fans.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

O Tempora, O Muppets!

Apparently Michael Moore has a new propaganda film out.
(And make no mistake, they are propaganda films, all of them; the man couldn't document his way past the simplest scrutiny of his objectivity.)
However, he tends to hate a lot of the same people I hate so I generally indulge in his stuff as a guilty pleasure, as long as I can step out of the room or fast-forward past the more dimwitted clowning and emotional appeals. In this latest one, rumor has it he compares Trump to Hitler.
Wrong.

Now, this is noting new. Thanks to the sheer paucity of historical coursework in American education and the undue credit the U.S. takes for "winning" WWII, Hitler has persisted as Americans' singular go-to bad guy reference. Every American politician gets called Hitler at some point, from tree-hugging welfare champions to austere liberTory-ans. In 2016 if memory serves, Sanders was hilariously lambasted for supposedly daring to compare Trump to Hitler while at the same time being compared, himself, to Hitler by some Trump supporters.
If you want to make money off an American election, sell tiny fake moustaches.

Like most urbane, college-edjumacated types, the very mention of our current presidential apprentice sends me reaching for a bottle of antacid. (I'm none too fond of his opposition either, but they can at least string two sentences together without interjecting the word "lew-zur".) The choice of analogy used for character attacks on him though is important, as it carries the social context which has produced that public figure. The Donald simply does not fit the spastic, humorless fascist archetype, nor does the U.S. match the economic situation of a country reeling after some international defeat.

It does, however, fit the bill for an empire having passed its cultural peak and begun its inevitable autophagic rot. Trump's not Hitler. He's Caligula. An entertaining figurehead initially beloved by the public despite (or because of) his infantile public persona, constantly megaphoning delusions of transcendent grandeur while investing vast sums of money toward pointless self-aggrandizing monuments, randomly lashing out at his own (former) allies, shocking genteel sexual mores... one was even known for his tiny feet, the other for his tiny hands!
And hey, given the professional qualifications and acumen of some of Trump's coterie, Incitatus might actually be a step up.

So...
Four more years?

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Order of the stick it to your audience

"You know what I'm talking about. You said I was insecure.
[...]
What you're really saying is I come off like I'm some kind of joke machine. That I have to be restrained with a yockstrap."

Hawkeye Pierce in M*A*S*H S09Ep13 - No Laughing Matter


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Spoiler alert: major last-act dramatic reveal for OOTS.
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The webcomic The Order of the Stick just did something very, very stupid. After over eleven hundred pages, it's decided to invalidate its entire cosmology. Granted, it's a stick figure comic about D&D characters who continually break the fourth wall to comment on game mechanics, but until now they at least had the decency to feel guilty about it. Then starting in comic 1139 a god divulges to two of his clerics the infinitely recurring and arbitrary nature of existence and the whole thing meta-jumps the meta-shark.

Just two weeks ago I scoffed at the game Wasteland 2 for its half-assed attempt to mask a lack of substance with cheap derivative references and meta humor. The difference between telling a joke and becoming a joke is largely that between self-possession and insecurity. Wasteland 2 crossed it, blatantly, by leaning too hard on its pop culture and self-derision crutches. In the same vein, it's one thing for OOTS' characters to constantly point out the absurdity of the world around them, and quite another for them to become accomplices to the perpetrators of such absurdity. Writing characters clever enough to spot the joke they inhabit retains the interplay between audience and actors, the tension and inquisitiveness of storytelling (even interactive.) Writing characters who are simply in on the joke forces a divide between them and the audience. It's a way of explaining said joke, and that tends to kill it.

When Tolkien set about writing the Silmarillion, he supposedly voiced some reticence in unveiling so much of Middle-Earth's cosmology, for fear it would kill the sense of mystery and grandeur behind his tales. He quite skillfully bridged this pitfall by holding the true powers of middle-earth off-stage. He gave us some accounts of the actions of the Valar, Morgoth or Eru Iluvatar, but we're never left simply leafing through Iluvatar's diary and hearing him scoff at how shoddy Arda turned out. This would force the audience's viewpoint into a sort of adolescent feigned nonchalance as to the trials and tribulations of hobbits; it would dilute the bulk of the story -

- and that's exactly what OOTS just did. The tendency for speculative fiction to retreat into some postmodernist reshaping of reality belies an intrinsic insecurity, an inability to form a coherent worldview. And it is (make no mistake) a tendency, a trend, a trope, a cliche. Ironic detachment has suffused our modern storytelling for so long and so thoroughly as to grow into, ironically enough, a forced perspective from which we cannot detach. Another, similar gaming themed webcomic, Guilded Age, recently ended after pro- regressing quite predictably from tales of adventuring and escapism to "clap your hands if you believe" omnipotence. Gunnerkrigg Court has taken the same turn. Supernormal Step recently ended with its latter half (from what I've skimmed) seemingly devoted to facile self-help mysticism. It's hardly limited to internet doodles, either. The TV show Lost quite infamously got lost on its island adventure, falling into fatalistic religious claptrap which invalidated pretty much everything its hobbits did on-screen. Star Trek before that was constantly plagued by interactions with omnipotent divinities. We've learned to expect every story to end in this sort of dissimulation of artistic coherence. To quote from David Foster Wallace's old spiel on the dangers of television culture:

"make no mistake: irony tyrannizes us. [...] All U.S. irony is based on an implicit 'I don't really mean what I say' [...] Anyone with the heretical gall to ask an ironist what he stands for ends up looking like a hysteric or a prig. And herein lies the oppressiveness of institutionalized irony, the too-successful rebel: the ability to interdict the question without attending to its content is tyranny."

What is your story about?
If it's about hobbits, then it's about actions which hobbits can undertake, about a world which hobbits can affect and problems which might worry hobbits. It's not about omnipotence, about infinite time, infinite power or infinite regression. Infinity's a showstopper. It makes a terrible show. If the world you've created can be anything, then it's nothing.

Worse yet, the "make your own reality" schtick has been done. On rare occasions it's even been done well. We've read Philip K. Dick and Neil Gaiman. We've seen Serial Experiments Lain. But those are exceptions. After seventy years of such endings, we should probably admit they're more often a cop-out, a sign of the authors' insecurity or inability to adequately define their worlds, an attempt to laugh off the question instead of providing an answer or admitting a lack.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Heroes of the Storm

I loathe Blizzard Entertainment.

Wait, that's not how this story starts. That comes later.
This story starts with Starcraft 1 back in the late '90s and the Aeon of Strife map. I never played it. I dimly remember taking a passing glance and deciding it bastardized the basic Real-Time Strategy routine too badly, plus I saw no point in playing one of the greatest PvP games of its time as PvE.

Half a decade later when "Aeon of Strife" became an entire category of player-modded PvP maps in Warcraft 3, the lack of "S" in RTS was already getting old and I'd grown more willing to branch out. A myriad lane-pushing maps filled the custom game list with experiments on hero advancement, ability cobbling, minion farming, item advancement, control points, etc. Good times were had. Horizons were expanded.

(Somewhere in between here, Demigod managed to both provide the most promising incarnation of the AoS concept and self-immolate by dragging its feet in the balance and infrastructure departments.)

When League of Legends and Heroes of Newerth finally became the first viable commercial models of AoS design, they did so by narrowing their focus down to one of the least creative WC3 AoS maps, Defense of the Ancients. Later games like Smite, Prime World, Paragon, Sins of a Dark Age, etc. slavishly copycatted most of DotA's "features" from item recipes to the exactly five (5) players per team and its one (1) map with its three (3) lanes and jungle camps. Never mind that everything in DotA from the four skill buttons to the item upgrading to the five player limit to jungle camps were all artifacts of Warcraft 3's game mechanics and had nothing to do with the lane-pushing concept.

Each of them failed in various glaring ways but usually added something. Heroes of the Storm, Blizzard's own re-iteration of DotA, does what Blizzard has done best for three decades running. It adds absolutely nothing, removes most of its competitors' more interesting features and steals as many of the more marketable ideas as it can while putting its own glossy spin on it. Just as they copycatted Warhammer and dumbed it down to rebrand it as Warcraft, as they dumbed down cRPGs into "Action"RPGs for Diablo, as they dumbed down Elric of Melnibone into Arthas, dumbed down TF2 into Overwatch, as they dumbed down MMOs into World of Warcraft's endless "kill ten rats" grindfest, they've dumbed down the potential of WC3's old AoS gamut, pared off anything which might require customers to think and regurgitated something that sells.

I would much rather be playing Demigod or Gigantic. Both went bankrupt, in keeping with the rather striking attrition rate for so-called "MOBA"s. Luckily, Blizzard incorporated quite a bit of other titles' point control, timed objectives, frontline health/mana regen, alternate "ultimates" and so forth, cannibalizing its victims. It even took the unprecedented measure of eliminating individual player level-grinding, the most important step toward making such games truly team-oriented - a necessary plunge which not even Demigod dared take. Also, given their obscene wealth, they've afforded themselves quite a bit of development time for creating variations on the 2-3 lane pushing theme.

They've also refrained from pushing microtransactions as aggressively as some others. Like Valve's DotA2, Heroes is more of a cross-promotion platform than a product in its own right, an easily accessible form of interactive advertisement targeted to the penniless young dregs of various societies. Mousing over each playable character lets you know in which other Blizzard game that character originated, just in case you might want to... y'know... take a look? Take a hint? Hint-hint?

Sure, there's no base building, no manipulating minion waves, no character customization beyond transient skill choices each match, no terrain manipulation, nothing whatsoever which might require planning and scare off Blizzard's bulk clientele of retarded teen scum. But what is there works. It has smoother matchmaking, slightly fewer griefers and trolls, better balance, more maps and less grinding than other MOBAs.

As much as I hate Blizzard for their constant destruction of creativity in the ideas they copycat, their neverending race for the lowest common denominator, I hate them even more for making it work. The world would be a much better place if parasitic hacks like them wound up starving to death in the gutter.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

It's totally meta!


If you live in Australia or like to keep up with biology news, you've probably heard of Tasmanian devils being driven to near-extinction - and for once it's not humans' fault! It's a thrilling tale of bad behavior, gruesome disfigurement and survival of the luckiest.

If you've gone to vet school you might also have heard of a certain canine "social" disease which defies normal epidemiology, lacking any non-canine infectious agent. What do the two have in common?

There's a certain class of disease almost certain to develop in any individual who lives long enough, by a simple accumulation of DNA errors as our cells divide. Being so similar to its host it proves devilishly hard to treat, it tends to grow systemic if untreated and if it reaches that stage it's most often fatal despite the best efforts of modern medicine. The best thing that can be said about cancer is that it's not contagious.
Usually.
Mostly.

While it may be old news to the experts, here's a dose of nightmare fuel for the rest of us: there is such a thing as infectious cancer. Even if the phenomenon hasn't appeared in humans just yet, Tasmanian devils seem to be the third documented mammalian case, so given the universe runs on Murphy's Law, let's take bets:
Will we develop our own human-derived transmissible tumors or will our species manage to somehow pick up some other mammal's cancer as a zoonosis? Wouldn't you like to be able to claim honestly to have a little devil inside you?

Either way, look at that face.
Sweet dreams.

Monday, September 10, 2018

"Let Us Leave Philosophy to the Physicists"

"If you don't want a house built, hide the nails and wood. If you don't want a man unhappy politically, don't give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none. Let him forget there is such a thing as war. If the government is inefficient, top-heavy, and tax-mad, better it be all those than that people worry over it. Peace, Montag. Give the people contests they win by remembering the words to more popular songs or the names of state capitals or how much corn Iowa grew last year. Cram them full of noncombustible data, chock them so damn full of 'facts' they feel stuffed but absolutely 'brilliant' with information. Then they'll feel they're thinking, they'll get a sense of motion without moving. And they'll be happy, because facts of that sort don't change. Don't give them any slippery stuff like philosophy or sociology to tie things up with. That way lies melancholy."

Ray Bradbury - Fahrenheit 451 (1953)


More than even other Science Fiction classics, Fahrenheit 451 has proven shamefully prophetic in its portrayal of future (read: current) American society, and down through gradients of decreasing similarity, worldwide modern culture as a whole. While literally (pun intended) burning books never caught on (a few fundies aside) before megabauds killed the cellulose star, Bradbury's vision of the West's gradual cultural suicide and our ever-constricting -
- hey, look at the kitty! -
- attention spans has only grown truer with every decade. If you scoff at Mrs. Montag playing Mad Libs with her imaginary "family" in the wall and refusing to even listen to anything other than ever more digested reader's digest digest digests, then what do you think you're doing on Facebook and Twitter?

But the quote above seems to miss its mark. Perhaps after nearly seventy years even Bradbury's prescience is beginning to wear thin and incongruities begin to appear in the Seldon Plan. It certainly held true up to the nineties and slightly after Y2K. Politicians (and all public figures) struggled to out-bland each other and the public could not be less interested in the res publica. Generation Snowflake, on the other hand, could not be more politically involved. In their nu-Victorian safe space wonderland, even uncrossing your legs on the subway or turning down the air conditioning is a political action. They all plan to rule the world with their special interest sociology degrees.

Bradbury seems to have failed to predict the degradation of the humanities and social sciences by postmodernism's winning recipe of pseudo-intellectual autocracy based on baseless, impenetrable gibberish. Whenever and wherever academia becomes a tool for fabricating moral clout by argumentation instead of a structure for analyzing the real world, when its mercenary applications overshadow its intellectual honesty, it also begins to enjoy a much wider popularity. The public suddenly finds itself deeply invested in those socio-economico-politico-academic disciplines promising unending self-justification for upholding the superiority of those born the correct sex or the correct skin color or proclaiming the correct sexual orientation.

And lucky for them, facts of that sort don't change. You can never go wrong declaring that the Emerald City is really green and everyone but yourself has lost their glasses. When you begin with such conveniently undisprovable assertions as "epistemic privilege" your chauvinistic diatribes become as simple as winning a trivia contest. All you have to do is remember the words to your favorite song:
Women are oppressed
Because women say they're oppressed
And being oppressed, they'd know best
Ipso ipso
PWND!!!

Now we're back to Ray Bradbury being one clearsighted son of a witch. His basic statements still hold, because modern pop-philosophy and pop-sociology are noncombustible data; they're the conversation-ending arguments against which no-one dares argue. And the media love it. They feed the public a constant stream of plucky underdogs standing up to some trivial social slight or another.

On the other hand, if you've the cojones to tangle with the slippery stuff which brings on melancholy, you'd be looking at naturalistic explanations. Examine the evolutionary roots of human behavior, or the interplay of individual self-interest from a game theory perspective, the harsh realities in whose light no-one ends up looking very angelic for long. The public demands to be distracted from such unpleasant realizations. They'd rather have discussions about which personal pronouns each of them prefer, the most simplistic all-consuming narcissism available. They'd rather have the words they hate, the books they hate, the people they hate, declared hate speech and hate mongers and burned.

It is science which offers the tools of social growth, the boards and nails, the worrisome hard decisions. Snowflake social activism is the obfuscating trivia providing a sense of motion without moving.










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P.S.
As for the title, I first saw it here, but it's apparently from here.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Do you ever feel that only your weakness, your incompetence, your worthlessness, your stupidity have allowed yet another day to slip by you?

If I were better, I could keep my grip on existence.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

ST: TNG - Lwaxana Troi

In an effort to relive my early teens, I am re-watching old episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. It is both better and worse than I remembered it, as was my youth most likely.
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Seriesdate: 2.19
Manhunt


The episode describing the fishlike Antedean race and a gripping, convoluted cloak and dagger plot to assassinate an entire interstellar diplomatic conference.
Actually, that describes about three minutes' worth of the show, and the very cheap, stiff rubber masks worn by those alien extras in the picture ensure that even those three minutes fail to register as memorable. Not exactly breaking the costume / makeup budget. The rest is filler, courtesy of Gene Roddenberry's wife in the purple dress there.

Lwaxana Troi, Deanna's mother, jumps on board for some reason (she's an ambassador whom we never see doing any ambassadoring) and as a menopausal Betazoid has apparently turned into a raging horndog. (Hornbitch?*) She sets her perverted* eyes on Picard, who flees the dire threat* of her forwardness under a cloud of ridicule* from his crew. Lwaxana lectures Deanna that men are a commodity* and she needs to mature* and learn to treat them as such - "and the men in your life are going to bless you for it."* We sacrifice about a third of the episode's screen time to yet another holodeck adventure into the 1940s (presumably to repurpose some gangster movie sets and costumes the studio had lying around and save yet more effects cash) and Lwaxana ends up hitting on a hologram**. Then just as this nonsensical string of digressions is wrapping up, the writers suddenly remember it's supposed to be a SciFi show and have Lwaxana effortlessly prevent a major interstellar incident just by being in the same room as the aliens. All she had to do was show up.

Pretty much the only intriguing scene has Deanna sensing her mother's arrival and exclaiming "my God" - do Betazoids indulge in gods? You'd think if anyone can actually manage get a prayer answered, it'd be the planet full of telepaths.

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Seriesdate: 3.24
Menage A Troi


Yeah... yeah, I know. I fancy myself a punny guy, but even I cling to standards higher than that title. It's the episode where Deanna and her mother get teleported naked

and Lwaxana masturbates a Ferengi's ears.

Sure, other stuff happens, but as with Tasha Yar's bellybutton, I'm guessing most youngsters who watched the show back then mainly remembered two women displaying their totally nude lumbar areas.

Look, we simply maintained lower expectations before the days of internet porn, alright?

Anyway. We start out with some gratuitous mother-daughter banter about grandchildren (during which Deanna somehow neglects to mention her easy-bake star child from the start of season 2.) Then they get surprise-teleported by Lwaxana's not-so-secret admirer. Watching the kidnapped Lwaxana romance the Ferengi captain and pull disgusted faces* at having to touch an unattractive male eats up a fair amount of screen time. Which is a pity because by the close of season 3, TNG had gotten good enough to supply much more Starring and Trekking than Manhunt did a year prior. Riker and the younger Troi pull off a daring jailbreak at chesspoint while Wesley solves the kidnapping mystery via reason and observation instead of nose-twitching. We get some jargon about starship engines, 3D chess, alien flora and alien erogenous zones, the works.

In fact, if you were to remove Lwaxana's sexual plot elements, I'd count this a pretty decent episode.
At least it gave us the memorable scene of Patrick Stewart belting out a sonnet medley at roughly one quarter his theatrical ability. It takes a good actor to purposely play a bad one.

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Seriesdate: 4.22
Half a Life

(No, this has nothing to do with hazard suits, headcrabs or crowbars.)

Season 1 of TNG was infamously terrible. Season 2 started out much the same but gradually began turning around. First the special effects, props and costumes improved, then the writers began putting in more effort to outgrow their pulpy self-limitations, mostly plot-wise. Season 3 saw marked improvements in character writing and acting, with most of the cast at last growing into their roles. By season 4 all these elements had coalesced into the respectable high point of trekking which we all know and love. (We all know and love.) (All!)

Darling, let's you and me kill me.
Timicin the Kaelonite (a.k.a. Charles Emerson Winchester III) visits the Enterprise to blow up a star while looking for a way to re-sunnify his own solar system's aging gas bag. And speaking of aging gas bags, most of the episode's dedicated to his species' customary suicide at age sixty to make room for younger gas bags. Lwaxana, who's fallen for the big lug, is dead set against him setting himself dead. Cue many emotional dialogues.

And damnit, it's good. As before, Majel Barrett's appearance eats up most of the screen time, with the Enterprise's crew barely being accorded token walk-ons in their own show. Unlike before, the plot's course takes her from a comedic beginning as her old season 1-2-3 completely flat over-the-top narcissist to an individual with both personal desires and some understanding of the objective reality around herself.

Though slightly disappointed at solar kablooie being sidelined in favor of interpersonal claptrap, I must concede this episode retains its SF credibility through its inhumanly honest discussion of old age and suicide. Timicin's treatment of the matter approaches both the serenity and multifaceted contextualization of Heinlein's Martian discorporation. The discussion moves quickly enough to hit on most any salient point from the personal to the interpersonal to the societal and utilitarian, with Stiers skillfully acting his way through various stages of grief and Barrett having grown skillful enough in her portrayal of Lwaxana to keep up with him.

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Really, the character of Lwaxana's just more first-season detritus. Though being played by someone with such a long-standing presence in Star Trek almost inevitably ensured her persistence, her personality and powers had to be downgraded, much like Wesley and Q, as the show matured. SF provides precious little justification for flamboyant grandes dames.

Her season 1 appearance in Haven mostly revolves around her overbearing, invasive use of her Betazoid telepathy.
By Manhunt, the writers must have come to the inevitable realization of what a game-breaker telepathy would prove for any sane sentient interactions and menopausally hobbled it.
Menage a Troi revolves around Ferengi being immune to Betazoiding and thus allows for her to display a modicum of rational problem-solving.
Half a Life casually expands this Betazoid telepathic incompatibility to some unspecified wide range of species then makes no further mention of it throughout her emotional displays versus Timicin or the ship's crew. Just as with the Lascar's helm in Torment: Tides of Numenera, the more thorough intimacy this accomplishes only underscores telepathy's unscientific unsuitability for Science Fiction. Her rational choice to share Timicin's ritual suicide with him and his family would have seemed completely out of character for the voyeuristic diva first appearing in season 1-2.

Sometimes, growth is best achieved by subtraction.

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* - while gender relations are not a main point here, it pays to imagine the roles reversed. How would these situations and attitudes have been presented or received by the audience had Lwaxana been male and her targets female?
** - quite a few lines of dialogue are dedicated to Picard and the rest of the crew accommodating both Lwaxana's need for a bit of flirtation and the need to prevent her embarrassment at not realizing she's flirting with a hologram, plus her righteous indignation at the discovery. Compare to the snide, condescending attitudes written into Geordi (m) or Barclay (m) and their holographic interactions, a whole season after Lwaxana's allotted her high horse.