Firefly Friday: Ep 8 Out of Gas

A space episode and an episode where the show mixes things up a little with a non-linear plot and nested flashbacks.

It opens with an injured Mal staggering through an apparently abandoned Serenity. As he collapses onto the floor of the cargo bay the story shifts back to Mal and Zoe’s first visit to the Serenity, with Mal attempting to convince her to be part of a crew.

The story flips back to the events much closer in time, as we learn how Mal ended up alone and near unconscious. An accidental fire/explosion has disabled the ship and also severely injured Zoe. From here, the episode runs between three perspectives:

  • flashbacks to Mal recruiting the four core members of the crew (i.e. the people who were already crew at the start of the pilot, Wash, Zoe, Kaylee and Jayne) plus Inara;
  • the crew responding the emeregency on the Firefly;
  • Mal’s last desperate attempt to stay alive, with his injuries paralleling those of the wounded ship.

It’s episode 8 and there are six more episodes to go, so (spoiler) Mal and the ship survive in the end. Obviously, there is a fair bit of sci-fi engineering plot contrivance here but nothing worth quibbling over. It is a cleverly done setting to create a kind of prequel episode while adding to the overall setting. In some episodes, space travel is little more than a way of indicating that the new dusty Western town is a different place than the last dusty Western town. Here, the emphasis is on how space travel has inherent dangers. As much as Mal (and even more so Kaylee) love Serenity as a ship, it is only a little bit better than a death trap (and presumably this is true of most ships). The crew risk their lives with every voyage but do so in an environment where it looks like many people on the settled worlds have a low life expectancy.

A violent encounter between Serenity and another ship hoping to exploits the situation explains how Mal is injured but also draws out another element in the show’s setting that we’ve seen before. Aside from Alliance warships, space vessels aren’t armed. Within the world-building, I assume this is due to the difficulty of having effective space weapons (e.g. the nearest thing to a space battle we’ve seen involved Jayne firing a rifle through a modified spacesuit back in episode 6).

The encounter with the other ship also emphasises the kind of dog-eats-dog culture of space travel. The crew of the other ship are little different from that of Serenity. They aren’t full-time pirates but with Serenity dead in the water, they are happy to use violence to gain an advantage. They are morally no different than Jayne, who (in flashback) Mal recruits during an armed stand-off by offering him higher wages than the outlaw gang Jayne is working for.

Everything works out in the end, of course. Mal outwits/out-guns the other crew and gets from the spare part needed to get the ship’s engines going again but at the cost of a wound that will kill him. The rest of the Serenity’s crew had been forced by Mal to escape in the shuttles, return at Zoe’s insistence and save Mal. The final flashback has Mal speaking to a used-spaceship salesman who is extolling the virtues of a ship that have echoed through the episode. The ship is not Serenity though. Instead, Mal looks away and sees Serenity off to one side on the used-spaceship lot and takes a shine to it.

OK, it is a sentimental ending that ties everything up a tad too neatly but it works. It is also a smart choice for episode 8 — we are far enough in the series to care about these events and for them to have some emotional heft.

As always, some great character work is done with an ensemble cast even though it is ostensibly a Mal-centric episode. I keep coming back to this aspect as the secret sauce of the show. Not every character gets a big moment but Kaylee, Wash, Inara & Jayne each have major scenes (Zoe less so) but Book, River and Simon don’t just vanish. Character development doesn’t even need to be very deep, Jayne especially is very shallow and that’s played up here as well. What’s working well, is keeping the sense of nine different people and the connections between them in play every episode so that we feel we know them even if we know very little (e.g. Book, who is more or less an enigma still).

Inventive and effective.

  1. Episode 3: Bushwacked
  2. Episode 7: Jaynestown
  3. Episode 8: Out of Gas
  4. Episode 2: the Train Job
  5. Episode 6: Our Mrs Reynolds
  6. Episode 5: Safe
  7. Episode 1: Serenity
  8. Episode 4: Shindig

Bond Songs 2: No Time To Die

  • Song/Theme: The James Bond Theme
  • Created by: Billie Ellish and Finneas O’Connell (+ Hans Zimmer & Johnny Marr)
  • Singer: Billie Ellish
  • Who is it about?: Bond’s feelings about somebody else
  • What’s it about?: Somebody who has been betrayed by their lover

Jumping to the future, we have a song for a film that I haven’t seen yet. The most recent Bond film (and supposedly Daniel Craig’s final Bond film) was repeatedly delayed by the Covid 19 pandemic. I skipped it when it was finally in cinemas locally because of the Omicron wave underway. The delay meant that Billie Ellish’s theme song was released, and won awards, a long time before the public saw the film.

It is easily the most melancholic of the many Bond theme songs, continuing a trend hinted at in Adele’s Skyfall and then taking further in Sam Smith’s Writing’s on the Wall for 2015’s Spectre. However, while the tone is full of betrayal and regret, the lyrics have an element of defiance.

I let it burn
You’re no longer my concern
Faces from my past return
Another lesson yet to learn

That I’d fallen for a lie
You were never on my side
Fool me once, fool me twice
Are you death or paradise?
Now you’ll never see me cry
There’s just no time to die

Lyrics to No Time To Die

The longer running puzzle of how to work in the film’s title into the theme song is managed quite well here. It doesn’t entirely make sense, but if you didn’t know this was a James Bond theme song, the title doesn’t stand out as a weird artefact.

There are some absolutely great Bond theme songs that don’t feel the need to sound like a Bond theme song (e.g. the brilliant Nobody Does It Better), No Time To Die is a bit more subtle about that. Out of context, it’s not obviously a Bond theme at first but as the big orchestra sound begins to dominate the music, the song takes on more of a Bond opening credit sequence sound.

The lyrics are about a feeling of betrayal and like a lot of Bond themes, they work separately from the plot. However, the accompanying music video makes a more direct connection. Featuring Ellish singer into an old fashioned microphone, the video works in footage from the film but in a way that often directly matches the lyrics. So, as Ellish sings “But I saw you there” it cuts from a view of Madeleine Swann (Bond’s love interest in the film) to Daniel Craig’s Bond staring.

The unusual thing here is positioning the song as about James Bond’s inner emotions. There are theme songs that appear to be about Bond & songs about the bad guy (Goldfinger!) and songs that maybe are about the inner emotions of a character in the film but not many from Bond’s perspective about his feelings (one other example comes to mind but it’s easily the worst Bond theme song there is and I don’t want to unpack that one yet). An emotionally vulnerable Bond isn’t a wholly new element to the franchise and feelings of betrayal and/or paranoia don’t really push Bond far away from his frequent depiction of somebody with psychopathic tendencies.

Overall, this is a very good departure for Bond. Yes, yes, I know the franchise is unkillable and will get a new reboot soon but for this project, No Time To Die is the other end of the arc that starts with Monty Norman’s theme. I’ve been listening to a playlist of all the Bond themes and of those 25+ songs, this is definitely a highlight. And, of course, the lyrics themselves promise that the protagonist of the song actually is not really, really going to die…

Which Appalling Person Got an Australia Day Honour This Time?

A year ago I wrote:

“Another year and January 26 ticks over again. Australia’s very flawed national holiday continues to be a source of division and disunity. Among the manifold aspects of this is the announcement of various honours.”

https://camestrosfelapton.wordpress.com/2021/01/26/australias-honours-system-remains-very-broken/

Among the many people honoured, in recent years we’ve had at least one person that looks like active trolling by somebody in the secretive system:

  • 2021 Australia Day Honours included Margaret Court, former tennis star and anti-marriage equality campaigner
  • 2020 Australia Day Honours included ‘men’s rights activist’ Bettina Arndt
  • 2019 Queen’s Birthday Honours included the most bizarre of the lot, Professor Adrian Cheok, a candidate for a far-right political party and sex-robot advocate

This year we have a more conventional appalling person: Australia’s richest plutocrat Gina Rinehart whose great achievement is being very, very rich by virtue of inheriting her dad’s mining company and controlling a hefty chunk of Australia’s mining licences. Her stance on sex-robots is not known. https://www.sbs.com.au/news/gina-rinehart-recognised-in-australia-day-honours-for-service-to-mining-community-and-sport/83cf5a7f-74bb-485f-8b66-2e9b8b4b4415

Keep the arms trade out of fandom

Back to Raytheon and the Hugo Awards briefly.

There’s a long connection between the arms trade, space technology and fandom. I’m going to detail some of that next month in a coda to Debarkle looking at some of those connections that I touched on in the main text (such as why Newt Gingrich kept making guest spots). However, I didn’t want January to pass without returning to the strange, upsetting and alarming sponsorship role of Raytheon in the 2021 Hugo Award ceremony.

Mary Robinette Kowal’s apology was creditable in many ways but it left lots of lingering questions. I suspect at this point we aren’t going to get any answers to those any time soon. That lack of further detail has meant that the initial discussion fizzled away, aided by the proximity of the scandal with the holiday period in many countries between Christmas Day and New Year.

Even without those further details, I think there’s a clear ethical line that we can draw: science fiction conventions and fandom and professional authors shouldn’t be taking money from the arms trade. Further, we shouldn’t be helping arms companies launder their reputations — that includes letting them have booths or if you are a notable author, taking speaking engagements with arms companies or closely related events.

Why?

  • Simply, every major arms companies is involved with conflicts that even by quite moderate, centrist, liberal values are deeply unethical. With Raytheon the obvious example was the civil war in Yemen — that is not a “good” or “just” war by any standards except the most reactionary.
  • More broadly the arms trade is instrumental in aiding anti-democratic authoritarian regimes around the world.
  • Most perniciously, the lobbying of arms companies such as Raytheon on national governments has been shown to be pressurising decisions favourable to both those outcomes.

In short, the arms trade profits from and encourages authoritarian regimes to go to war and embroils democratic governments in that process. I could document each of those points and I did illustrate several of them on social media during the height of the Raytheon arguments in late December. I won’t do that here to keep this post fairly short.

Put simply: even if you aren’t very left-wing, even if you are at the centre leaning-right, it should be clear that arms companies currently have a negative impact that goes far beyond the needs of national defence.

Let me anticipate some counter-arguments:

  • Such a boycott is demonising people in the [US] military“. No, that’s not the point. People join the military for lots of reasons, including a lack of other decent options. Many do so with a genuine belief that they are defending their country. Programs such as sending books to military personnel stationed overseas is not somehow the same as taking sponsorship from a missile manufacturer.
  • Many people work for divisions of these companies that are involved in other kinds of work, in particular space technology“. True and I know there’s an overlap there with fandom. I’m not telling people to quit their jobs — there’s ethical questions there obviously but those ethical questions aren’t the same or as simple as the ethical question I’m raising above.
  • This is an attack on MilSF!” No, nor is it a call to cut out hi-tech weapons from science-fiction books. I’m not calling for a aesthetic puritanism that culls out all the explosions and cunning missiles from science-ficition. Aside from anything else, that isn’t going to happen.
  • You can’t boycott everything that’s morally compromised, what about Amazon (et al.)!” True we can’t boycott everything and there’s no point engaging with ineffectual boycotts. However, WE CAN DO THIS (boycott the arms trade). We really can cut these kinds of ties with the arms trade.
  • It is just superficial posturing“. Maybe, but clearly a company like Raytheon wanted SOMETHING from fandom. No, this won’t usher in world peace but within what power we do have, we can achieve a small but significant thing.
  • [eta] “You are saying that somebody can’t have a stall selling knives or swords!” No, I think from the context it is obvious that I’m not talking about a small metal working business selling sharp things to collectors. Not sure what the best way to say “arms trade” to make that clear but I’m not coming for your knife collection.

The issue is that science-fiction as a genre and fandom more generally should not be helping these companies launder their reputations. We shouldn’t help the arms trade do that and that is an achievable objective.

Susan’s Salon: 23/24 January 2022

Use the comment section to chat about whatever you want. Susan’s Salon is posted early on Monday (Australian Eastern Standard Time, which is still Sunday in most places). It’s fine to be sad, worried, vaccinated, unvaccinated-yet, angry or maybe even happy (or all of those things at once).

Please feel free to post what you like (either troubling news or pleasant distractions) in the comments for this open thread. [However, no cranky conflicts between each other in the comments.] Links, videos, cat pictures 🐈 etc are fine! Whatever you like! 😇

Breaking News on a topic that was pretty much dead

I got a hot tip from Richard Gadsen to check out the blog of Vox Day. I’d actually almost stopped ever looking because it had become either vaccine-denial, his comic website or weird stuff about how great the Chinese government is. But…

Vox Day has announced that he running for Chief Financial Officer of the SFWA, nearly 10 years after he was expelled (see this surprisingly relevant chapter https://camestrosfelapton.wordpress.com/2021/04/09/debarkle-chapter-22-the-sfwa-civil-war-part-1/ )

“Dear Mr. Johnson,
I am writing you to confirm my campaign for SFWA’s Chief Financial Officer in the 2022 election as per the SFWA Elections page.
As I am an SFWA Life Member with more than two years’ active SFWA membership in good standing, please confirm my eligibility for the SFWA Board in a timely manner. I will be happy to provide you with my platform after receiving your confirmation of my eligibility.”

https://web.archive.org/web/20220122090330/https://voxday.net/2022/01/21/a-new-campaign/

But why! Well…probably because nobody, not even hydrophobic crypto-fascists, are talking about Vox Day anymore. The field of obnoxious far-right pundits is swamped with younger figures and Day can’t compete with the Nick Fuentes or even Tim Pools of this world. There is a surfeit of over opinionated right-wing dickheads.

So it looks like it’s an attempt at a comeback tour playing the classic hits.

Day has always claimed that the expulsion was done improperly and that therefore he was still a member. At the time he claimed he was going to sue the SFWA but like many of Day’s legal threats, this amounted to nothing. Maybe he has a new lawyer. Maybe he’s bored. Maybe the fading sense of relevance that can overwhelm a man in his fifties is creeping up on him like the ghost of his youth. We shall see or more likely, we won’t see anything at all and the whole thing gets forgotten about.

[eta On Gab, Day is saying this about his campaign:

“My campaign for Chief Financial Officer of SFWA is designed around my commitment to equitably distribute the MILLIONS of dollars presently retained by the organization for no purpose whatsoever among the current active membership.
This will deliver approximately USD 1,500 to each member, thereby providing them with more benefit than the organization has hitherto ever provided its members.”

A bold populist move that’s likely to appeal to the SFWA members currently on Gab [estimated to be somewhere between 0 and 1].

The M of RWG&SD Exhibit 2: The Congreve Rocket

Exhibit 2
  • Dates: 1804 to ~1850
  • Description: An improved design of military rocket
  • Significant Figure: Sir William Congreve, 2nd Baronet

To aid the casual visitor to my internet roadside attraction get a sense of the range of exhibits here, I wanted to delve back further in time. It’s not just over-complicated computer input devices in here! Also, not all of the devices in the museum will be absolutely f–ing useless. The Congreve rockets were a big success, which was good news for the British Empire but terrible news for a hefty proportion of the rest of the world.

Due to fire regulations, the Museum of Right-Wing Gadgets has to limit the number of weapons included as exhibits but the Congreve rocket I feel captures the essence of what I’m looking for in an exhibit. It’s not just that weapons are used by oppressive regimes, there are multiple dimensions here with both how the rockets were used, how they were invented and who invented them.

It is the late 18th century, and Britain was not just busy inventing modern imperialism in other people’s countries but doing so with a novel form of public/private partnership via the British East Indian Company. That money-fuelled push into India was meeting well-organised resistance by Tipu Sultan, the so-called Tiger of Mysore. While his resistance to the ambitions of the British in India would ultimately fail, his armies had several military successes over British forces. In part, this was due to a piece of superior military technology: rockets.

Mysorean rockets used iron and bamboo to create weapons that were more portable than standard artillery but which had decent range and a deadly impact.

“Rocket men were trained to assess the parabolic curve of the rocket’s flight and vary the angle of dispatch, depending on the diameter of the cylinder and the distance from the target. For multiple launching, Tipu created his own ‘rocket organ’, capable of launching 5-10 rockets at once – as used at the siege of Honore (1784) . 600 ‘engines of iron for throwing rockets’ were found at Seringapatam in 1799, together with 700 serviceable and 9,000 empty rockets. Some of these had iron points or steel blades bound to the bamboo, to inflict greater damage, and some of Haidar’s rockets had pierced cylinders, so that the wind could catch the burning flame, and the passing rocket would then act like an incendiary.”

https://web.archive.org/web/20070929195356/http://www.tigerandthistle.net/tipu312.htm

This leads us to one of the greatest sources of technological invention: theft.

Back in the UK, the British army began developing its own iron rockets, influenced by the effectiveness of the Mysorean design. Sir William Congreve was a businessman and owner of a right-wing newspaper that he used to campaign against electoral reform. He was also the son of the Lt. General Sir William Congreve, 1st Baronet, the Comptroller of the Royal Laboratories at the Royal Arsenal and in 1814 he inherited both the Baronetcy and the position at the Arsenal. By this point, he was already well into his rocket research.

After multiple trials, experiments and redesigns, the Congreve rockets quickly became a standard part of the equipment of the British forces. Gunpowder fuelled iron rockets of multiple sizes could be more easily transported and deployed just in time for the Napoleonic wars. By 1812 Congreve rockets would be used by the British against the ex-British colonies in North America and would later enjoy a cameo appearance in the US national anthem (apparently rockets aren’t terribly effective against flags).

Congreve rockets would go on to be used in multiple wars including British imperial expansion in Burma, New Zealand and in India from where they had stolen the idea in the first place. To add to the litany, they were also used in the killing of non-human intelligent creatures whin in 1821, Congreve trialled the use of rockets against whales.

The Right-Wing connection: So why does this strange device deserve a place in the Museum of Right-Wing Gadgets? Sure, lots of military inventions were used to kill large numbers of people and steal their land and resources but there is an added dimension here of Congreve essentially borrowing the idea from the very people the weapon would be used against. However, “used for bad things” is neither a necessary nor sufficient criterion for inclusion in the museum.

Congreve would later become a Tory MP but it was his initial career that caught my eye.

“In 1798 Congreve senior, resting his claims on his military services and the improvements he had made in the manufacture of gunpowder, applied to Pitt for ‘provision in some department under government’ for William, who was ‘from unforeseen accidents yet totally unprovided for’. Nothing came of this and Congreve evidently went into business: early in 1804 Lord St Vincent commended him to Hiley Addington as ‘a respectable merchant in the City’ who had established a newspaper, the Royal Standard and Political Register, ‘for the sole purpose of vindicating government against the vile charges of Cobbett’. Later in the year George Cranfield Berkeley* was awarded damages of £1,000 in a libel action against the Standard and Congreve seems to have withdrawn from publishing.”

https://www.historyofparliamentonline.org/volume/1790-1820/member/berkeley-hon-george-cranfield-1753-1818

Congreve junior depended on his dad’s wealth and influence to make a start in life and part of his business schemes was a shady right-wing rag. The newspaper fell apart after it spread unfounded claims of cowardice about a war hero. Aside from dodgy claims, the main thrust of Congreve’s newspaper was to attack William Cobbett. Cobbett was a reformist who was campaigning against so-called Rotten Boroughs (parliamentary constituencies with tiny voting populations that could be effectively controlled), and other issues such as land enclosures. Cobbett also campaigned for Catholic emancipation i.e. improving the rights of Catholics in the UK and Ireland. Letting Catholic men (who owned property etc) have the same legal rights as Anglicans/protestants was seen by people like Congreve as a major threat to the social order — a position made additional egregious by the Act of Union with Ireland that extend the British parliamentary system to Ireland which had a majority Catholic population.

Congreve doesn’t quite match the polemical failson type character that will reappear in this series. His rockets did work and they weren’t his only invention but the parallels are notable with other characters in this series.

One more thing to add to Congreve’s qualifications. The museum has a strict policy against including perpetual motion machines because there would be no room for anything else. It’s not that perpetual motion machines don’t belong here, it’s just that we only have so much space. So, we will acknowledge Congreve’s doomed attempts to create a perpetual motion machine that used the novel idea of capillary action:

“The modus operandi was conceived to be as follows: On the vertical side, a sponge as it entered the water would be uncompressed by the string of weights and therefore free to absorb water by capillary attraction. As a sponge emerged from the water at the lower end of the hypotenuse, the line of weights would operate to compress it and thus keep it comparatively dry. Because of the difference in weight on the dry and wet sides, the whole system would move.”

https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/perpetual-motion-1911-11-18/

Museum Scores

  • Gadgetyness: 5/10 the rockets are small enough to sort of be called a gadget but I feel like an iron-clad firework doesn’t quite have the full vibe needed to be called a gadget.
  • Ideologicalness: 10/10 a tool of British Imperialism invented by an aristocrat who actively campaigned against civil rights and which was also somehow cultural appropriation? 11/10 would be a fair rating.
  • Actualness: 10/10 the Congreve rockets were functional and would be used for several years. So unlike other exhibits, this did work as intended.