More Scrappy Dooing being Done

I’m increasingly glad I coined some sort of term for the post-Sad Puppy self-promotion via internet feuding culture. Recently I saw some weird aspects of it (see here) but yesterday it took on an even nastier tone with SuperversiveSF’s twitter account (and one other) harassing writer K. Tempest Bradford.

There is a stark contrast here. The recent bizarre attacks thrown at Mike Glyer and then at me where overheated and made little sense and then descended into conspiracy theories but were largely laughable. However, note that when the target was a black woman writer the attacks quickly focused on sex, sexuality and her ethnicity and were more personal and much nastier. I guess we shouldn’t be surprised in 2017 that the misogyny and racism quickly becomes overt but I’m still saddened by it.

I don’t want to tell people how to react if you become embroiled in a Scrappy-Doo campaign. Mute/Block is one approach, ignoring it is another, responding is another – but people know this already. I guess I’m just trying to point this out as a general warning that there is a current uptick in such activity.

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1. Ask A Triceratops

askatriceratops

By Susan Triceratops

This week an aspiring author asks:

“Dear Susan,
I can’t decide whether I should use first person or third person for my new novella. I’d like to try second person but I’m told it is really difficult.

What would a triceratops use?
Yours
Firstorthird Cantdecide”

Great question! I’m going to have to get technical here!

Typically there are three and a half choices.

  • First person – typified by the word “I”. The story is narrated directly by a character involved in the events and at the centre of the story (or part of the story).
  • Second person – typified by the word “you”. The story is told as if the reader is being addressed as if they were a main character in the book.
  • Third person – typified by she, he, they or other pronouns. The story is narrated as if by an observer who can knows what is happening but is not actually involved.Third person can be split into two further types:
    • Limited point of view – third person is used but in a way that follows a particular character and limits what we are told by what that character knows or experiences.
    • Omniscient – the story is told as if by a person who knows everything relevant that occurred.

Human writers like to use first and third-limited these days. I guess they suit mammal brains.

What would a triceratops use? Well grammatically and stylistically we like to use the FOURTH person.

The fourth person is characterised by the word “apparently” and is the perspective of somebody discussing events indirectly.

The fourth person comes in two basic forms:

  • Fourth person incidental – the story is told in the form of describing indirect events and occurrences from which the main story can be inferred. The closest I’ve seen a mammal use this is Tom Stoppard’s Rozencrantz and Guilderstern are Dead – which doesn’t really capture the full triceratops literary style but gives you a sense of it.
  • Fourth person retelling – the story is told as somebody re-telling a story they heard from somebody else. This is seen as a lesser, more populist style by triceratops. However, it can stack recursively to make quite complex perspectives when the fourth person is used to tell a story that was already fourth person. To translate into mammal, imagine a film of an interview of a director of a documentary about the staging of a performance of a dramatisation of a novel that was of a woman watching the film version of the play of the Frost-Nixon interviews.

The fourth person is modified by noting the perspective which is being used for the incidental account or retelling.

  • Fourth by first person – “I was told that it was the best of times and the worst of times.”
  • Fourth by second person – “You were told that it was the best of times and the worst of times.”
  • Fourth by third person – “They were told that it was the best of times and the worst of times.”

In addition the perspective of the incidental or retold story may need to be noted. This is done by adding “via”. ““You were told that it was the best of times and the worst of times.” would be classed as Fourth by second via third omniscient in a triceratopian writing class.

The most highly regarded approach in triceratops society is the fourth by fourth by third via second. It is a highly traditional perspective used in both contemporary forms and classic poetry. Original it was used to describe the incidental aftermath of what occurred in a retelling of doctor explaining what happened just before a triceratops was accidentally knocked unconscious by a drunken t-rex trying to climb a tree (a recurring theme in classical triceratops poetry).

Personally, I’d opt for Fourth (incidental) by second via third. This may sound super difficult but it is an easy introduction for a mammal to have a go at the triceratopian way of writing! Just imagine you are telling somebody what happened to them when they were watching a movie of the main story that you originally had in mind. Note a common mistake by mammals is to add in to many sundry events that aren’t in the ‘movie’. Your fourth by second protagonist should only be experiencing events and emotions that arise directly from the ‘movie’ (i.e. your third person narrative).

The Punisher – An Artfully Crafted Moral Vacuum

Not a review exactly – minor spoilers.

First debuting in Netflix’s Daredevil Season 2, the TV version of Marvel’s Punisher now has his own Netflix series. It is good in lots of ways. Jon Bernthal is a talented actor who pulls the contradictions of Frank ‘The Punisher’ Castle together convincingly. The dialogue and performances of the broader cast is effective. While slow moving at times, each episode remains compelling to watch.

There are generic flaws – the first episode is somewhat disposable and as with the other Netflix Marvel shows, some of the middle episodes are actually inconsequential and without them the series would have been tighter. I get an overall impression of a set of writers and directors who have looked at prestige TV shows and figured out what to do. So while the show isn’t The Wire, it is a show that is aware that such a show existed and that TV can be shaped in a particular way.

But this is not a general review. What I wanted to discuss was the wisdom of making the show in the first place. I certainly had my doubts when it was announced and it was also clear that Marvel were nervous about making a show centered on a character defined by his gun-fueled killing sprees. While any of the TV/Movie versions of Marvel characters have some scope for re-invention, The Punisher has to act as a one man extra-judicial death squad. A plot line can expand his motivation or show other aspects of his character and he doesn’t even need his distinctive skull logo but sooner or later if he doesn’t kill lots of bad guys then he simply isn’t The Punisher.

As such, Frank Castle is an extrapolation of the ethical problem of most superheroes. If they act as agents of the state they are one thing (glorified police officers?), but if they act as figures of law and order and the status quo but without state sanction then what are they? Part of the attraction of the X-Men as a franchise is that they can be a third thing – people with powers acting against the society (or at least an aspect of it). However, in general the major comic book publishers are not keen on the notion of revolutionary superheroes.

Yet the space superheroes can map onto into our real world falls into three regions:

  • Agents of the state
  • Vigilantes
  • Revolutionaries

Each of which are unpalatable in their own ways for populist stories that avoid taking too much of an ideological stance. So, you can see in the positioning of characters in Marvel properties a quest for some fourth thing or things that characters can be.

  • Jessica Jones – is a private detective. Neither a vigilante nor an officer of the state but in a legitimate role.
  • Luke Cage – not yet a ‘hero for hire’ in the TV version but primarily trying to help people out as a man with social responsibilities. He sits on the other side of a line from ‘vigilante’ in so far as he is trying to just be a good person who happens to be bullet proof.
  • Dr Strange and other similar characters defend a different kind of status quo in a different domain. Supernatural and otherworldly threats provide an alternative role for the superhero – fighting forces that only they can fight. Notably, the Netflix Defenders series took this route for the combo of Cage, Jones, Daredevil and Iron Fist.

But this fourth space for superheroes to occupy for non-otherworldly threats poses problems for Marvel (and for DC). This vacuum was eluded too but not examined in Captain America: Civil War. Captain America’s stance not to sign the Sokovia Accords was not well examined or explained. Instead, the rightness of his stance is largely just assumed as an extension of Steve Rogers own integrity. That manages to just about work in that film so long as you don’t pay too much attention to it but on closer examination Rogers really has to choose to be either an agent of the state or a vigilante. If you call yourself ‘Captain America’ then you can either be a soldier employed and held accountable by the state or your indistinguishable from a nutty ‘militia’ hiding in a compound and plotting against the BATF.

The Punisher series gets this. It really is genuinely aware of these issues – mainly because they become unavoidable when your central character uses military equipment to murder criminals without trial. It even gets that there are issues with all the alternatives. Aside from the first episode, the antagonists in the story are variously:

  • An megalomaniac CIA official
  • a US Army death squad operating in Afghanistan
  • A Blackwater-like independent military contractor
  • A Timothy McVeigh-like far-right terrorist

Each of these (except the first) are presented with some complexity. It isn’t a spoiler to reveal that the death squad mentioned above is part of the series origin story for Frank Castle. In this regard, the show really is trying to work out a position but in truth it can’t find one because the moral space the show is looking for doesn’t exist.

Castle, as a character, isn’t the problem. Mainly because Bernthal has found away to be this absurd character convincingly, Castle manages to be plausible and sympathetic. Rather than following a ‘good psychopath’ trope, the TV-version Frank Castle is a man in near constant emotional pain from loss, guilt and past trauma. The killing he does is not out of rage but rather the opposite – he is presented as a man who gets to be emotionally numb when he is conducting a military operation. So while ‘revenge’ acts as a motive to organize his campaigns of violence against those he blames for his family’s death, his killing people is (mainly) emotionless – a means to an end and a means he only adopts because he just so happens to be particularly good at being a one man army.

The problem is the wider issue of Castle firstly being presented as a ‘heroic’ rather than just damaged and the characters around him that justify his status as heroic. This done by defining him by what he is not. While we learn that he was part of the corrupt US death squad in Afghanistan, we also learn that he was following orders (hmm) and not corrupt (i.e. unaware of the unsanctioned nature of the work and its connection with the drug trade) and that he is traumatized by his actions. Castle’s trauma and guilt is contrasted with others involved who are not traumatized by their involvement – an at times heavy handed way of underling that Castle is not like ‘them’. Likewise, Castle is overtly contrasted with the far-right terrorist character who sees themselves as being inspired by The Punisher – again the show goes to some pains to underline that here is another ‘them’ that Castle isn’t. We also get a cowardly pro-gun control politician (who more obviously is not like Castle), an ex-comrade of Castle’s running his own legitimate security/military contractor business. But describing what Castle isn’t doesn’t help them define what he is.

For plot reasons and continuity reasons, that role falls on Karen Page. Page, originally a paralegal from the Daredevil series is now an investigative reporter. Given her experiences both with Daredevil/Matt Murdock and with Castle (Daredevil season 2), Page gets to be the non-superhero character who has to occupy the pro-superhero vigilante position. That’s a tough gig. Consequently she has to be both the liberal centrist with a strong faith in justice with a concealed carry permit who gets to counter the pro-gun control politician’s position. The script almost collapses under its own contradictions at this point – with guns providing no defense against a determined killer in body armour and a body count rapidly mounting, Page has to argue absurdities. She has a gun in her purse to defend herself from killers, but the killer she is danger from this time has no problem killing highly trained and highly armed ex-military specialists. Oh and the killers she previously had to protect herself from where supernatural undead ninjas (Daredevil season 2 and also The Defenders). Page needs an infinity stone rather than a handgun.

Her arguments are given weight by the politician being a bit of an arse but otherwise this not much a debate. The show can’t take a stance without either being absurd or rejecting its own premise. So we are left with an absurd attempt at balance – an earlier pro-NRA 2nd amendment conspiracy theory nut was shown to be ‘fake valor’ fraud and the pro-gun control politician is shown to be a coward and an implied hypocrite. Maybe the truth is somewhere in the middle! Gosh and in that middle we find the VACUUM. The superhero genre and the crime-fighting subgenre at its heart needs this same fourth space to exist.

The Punisher ends up highlighting this vacuum because the superpower is made real and manifest in the form of modern military weapons. With great power comes great responsibility simply doesn’t cut it with a device so easily obtained. Superheroes aren’t a single metaphor but the analogy between superpowers and individual arms is a hard one to avoid, and The Punisher as a character is an avatar for that analogy. Yet the superhero genre, at least in the form of DC/Marvel, wants to sit at a political centre and hence needs an ideological space in which we are all Karen Page – liberal minded defenders of common rights and the basic status quo but also wanting to be able to take the law into our own hands and have the same military power as the state.

To be fair to Marvel, they have at least attempted to look at this but clearly they only have absurd answers. Which, maybe, that’s OK if it is Steve Rogers or The Hulk but they needed a better answer with The Punisher. Is it Ok to elect yourself judge, jury and executioner? No, it can’t be because no society can exist where that is the norm. There isn’t a viable space for that as a hero*.

 

*[OK, there is a whole OTHER essay that I won’t write about Judge Dredd at that point. Suffice to say that’s a whole other issue again but which rests on the capacity for Dredd’s stories to run a gamut from social satire to Dredd as the villain to Dredd as a hero in a way that a conventional comic book character can’t.]

McEdifice Returns: Chapter Fan Service

mcedficieromance

McEdifice Returns By Straw Puppy and Timothy the Talking Cat.

The “story” so far. After being captured by the forces of the Space Vampires, McEdifice was sent back in time and space through the gaping maw of a giant space vampire head. Determined to rescue him the alien Qzrrzxxzq and ScanScan the Dancing Photocopier man, journey first to 1960’s America and then to 1950’s England. Reunited the trio leap once more into the future headed for Draculon 6 – The Vampire Planet of the Six-sixty-six System.

I was only a timid photocopier caught up in a mans world. I had set out to find myself and make my way in unforgiving world of office administration – but I had dreams, dreams I had to deny myself, dreams of dancing to the beat of my soul, dreams of moving to the rhythm of the universe.

Those long, lonely weeks working at the offices of Spindle, Spindle & Gatefold, I had felt invisible, overlooked, only noticed when something went wrong. I was always ready to be blamed for a late report or an overdue memo. No body saw me for who I really was but just a means to an end, a happy scapegoat for other people’s poor planning, bad timekeeping or inadequate attention to margin settings.

Then one day everything changed. An alien attack! I was possessed by a force I could not understand! Would this be the end of me? Doomed to be enslaved by a psychic power?

And then…then HE arrived. Broad shouldered and with a commanding charisma. A man who brooked no compromise, who knew where he stood and how he stood there. A man whose very name said “Chiseled”. With one powerful movement of his bemuscled arms, he freed me from the grip of my alien possession. At that moment I knew love for the first time.

But no sooner had we met than he left me. Yet for one brief moment I had been noticed. But more than that I was FREE, free to follow my two deepest desires!

  • To dance! To dance like Fontaine! Like Baryshikov! Like Toni “Mickey Your So Fine” Basil!
  • To photocopy my own bottom.

Admittedly the second one was less edifying. And yet…

Via the transformation required for both hobbies I discovered the secrets of multidimensional spatial manipulation. And by using those powers and the incorporation of an ansible projector into my functions, I could repay my debt to him by heading back in time to rescue my true love – Chiseled McEdifice.

Together at last, he held me in his powerful arms and said:

“WAKE UP MCEDIFICE!”

In a surprisingly higher pitched voice.

“WAKE. UP. MC. EDIFICE!” his voice insisted. This was not what I expected at all.

Suddenly I was drenched as if somebody had poured a bucket of cold water all over me.

I sat up with a start. Over to my left was ScanScan the Dancing Photocopier man shaking his head in a befuddle manner. Standing over me, holding a bucket, was Qzrrzxxzq.

“Wait,” I asked, “Am I Chiseled McEdifice or am I ScanScan the Dancing Photocopier Man?”

“You’re McEdifice,” stated Qzrrzxxzq.

“Oh boy, you will not believe the weird dream I just had!” I replied.

“Oooh yes, I will,” said Qzrrzxxzq, “You were narrating your dream VERY loudly. I had to wake you before you gave our position away.”

“But…” said McEdifice switching the narrative from first person to third person, “I was experiencing deeply romantic feelings about myself…”

“Place originals face down on the platter,” said ScanScan mournfully.

“I’m so sorry ScanScan!” said McEdifice, “It was a psychic leak caused by our interdimensional travel! I understand now! It all makes sense! The Space Vampires must have caused my brain to attune to the psychic auras of those around me. That’s why they sent me back to a time and place where I would be surrounded by peace loving hippies!”

“You are making no sense. Just wait there, I’ll get another bucket of water.” said Qzrrzxxzq helpfully.

“No need – I’m back in my right wits! You see, it was no good the Space Vampires killing me… that would just make me a martyr and an inspiration to manly Space Marines everywhere.” explained McEdifice, “Instead, they used hippies to dampen my manly Space Marine aura – an aura so manly and inspiring that without it the Space Vampires would at last have chance of victory!”

“You might be right, McEdifice,” said Qzrrzxxzq, “but we are trapped now on Draculon 6 with no guns and no ammo and you may have broken ScanScan’s heart.”

“Noooooo!!!!!” said McEdifice.

 

Trek Tuesday* – Errand of Mercy

To fill the empty space left by the Star Trek Discovery hiatus, I’ve decided to look at some classic Trek episodes that I feel are pertinent to Discovery. There will be spoilers but given the age of the episodes I won’t normally give warnings.

First up is Errand of Mercy from the very first season of Star Trek. I must have seen this episode as a kid but when I saw it again as an adult I fell for the surprise twist hook, line and sinker.

The obvious pretext for including this episode as background for Discovery is that it is the first Klingon episode. Like Discovery, Starfleet finds itself rapidly falling into war with the Klingons. However, my main reason for picking on it is as an example of what Discovery is failing to do, which is to examine some of the assumptions of Star Trek that arise out of its post-WW2 and US hegemonic roots. I’m reminded of well of the danger of assuming that what we remember of Star Trek is shaped by later series and the movies. In one of the Feminist Frequency recaps of Star Trek Discovery there was an extended critique of the episode when the crew of Discovery land on the planet Pavoh only to discover it has intelligent life. The critique was how Star Trek in general always treats it as a given that the Federation is good and that other planets and cultures should side with it over, say, the Klingons. I think that criticism is fair but, at the same time, Star Trek actually very cleverly pulled that whole concept apart way back in the very first series.

We begin on board the Enterprise. Kirk has a message from command telling him that negotians are breaking down with the Klingons and war may be imminent. Kirk is told to proceed to the planet Organia – which is in a strategic position and may be targetted by the Klingons. Before the Enterprise reaches the planet it is attacked by a Klingon ship – which signals that the Federation is now at war with the Klingons.

Kirk and Spock beam down to the planet, leaving Sulu in charge of the Enterprise with strict others to skedaddle if the Klingon fleet turns up. Kirk and Spock find the Organians to be a technologically primitive people, with little in the way of government. The Organians lsiten politely to Kirk’s offer of Federation membership and help against the Klingons but they politely decline. Shortly thereafter the Klingon fleet arrives and invades Organia.

It needs to be said that the Klingons are both comical and appalling. The Klingon army is a few guys marching across the set. The makeup manages to be racist in a way that is insulting both to black people and Chinese people – apparently they literally used shoe polish. The Klingon commander, Kor, is perhaps the most urbane Klingon in the Trek canon beating even Christopher Plummer’s Shakespeare quoting Klingon from the movies. At this point in Trek, the Klingons are just a generic military dictatoship, more 1984 than the syncretic mix of Viking-Samurai from later versions.

For most of the episode Kirk makes a series of speeches at the Organians. Initially he tries to scare them with the dangers of a Klingon invasion. Next he tries to tempt them with the colonial wonders of Federation technology. Later he lambasts them for their cowardice. The script plays this straight, with Kirk very much in character and the tone placing Kirk in the right and the Organians look like naive simpletons. (I don’t think the non-interference Prime Directive was in play yet but the underlying idea does get addressed later on).

But one Trek trope is still in play – no alien planet is ever quite what it seems. There are clues – e.g. one member of the council of elders (all men by the way) is surprisingly knowledgeable about the deployment of Klingon starships in orbit. Also, and I’m sure this must have been deliberate, the door to the council chambers appears to work automatically, swinging open without being pushed. The normally observant Spock doesn’t comment on the door but I can’t imagine why the set designers would have gone to the trouble of a having a door swing open by itself for no reason.

As the episode continues, Spock and Kirk battle Kor and his Klingons in various ways and both Kirk and Kor get increasingly frustrated and contemptuous of the pacifist Organians and their sad smiles. Kirk is also very much characterized as a military commander with a martial reputation that even Kor is aware of.

Then the episode turns on its head.

The Organians simply cannot stand the conflict anymore. Having repeatedly assured Kirk that they were in no danger from the Klingons they finally reveal WHY. Rather than technologically backward peasants, they are actually hyper-evolved energy being just cosplaying as peasants. They psychically prevent Kirk and Kor using their weapons, then they disable the Enterprise and the Klingon fleet and THEN project their minds to Earth and the Klingon homeworld stopping the war completely.

Kor and Kirk are outraged. Kirk vehemently objects to the Organians using their advanced powers in this way. They explain how they prefer not to interfere in the affairs of lesser being but essentially the Klingons and the Federation had just become too annoying. Finally they explain that one day Humans and Klingons will be allies.

Kirk, thoroughly embarrassed, concedes that they won’t be having a war today after all.

The benevolent and patronizing colonialism of the federation, the assumptions of the necessity of war in the face of aggression and the assumptions about some cultures being backward are all aired unironically in the episode and then demolished – although with something of a Deus ex machina but it is played so straight that if you only saw a half of the episode you wouldn’t spot that the script doesn’t actually endorse what Kirk says.

Not a flawless episode and at times accidentally comedic and oh-dear the Klingon make-up and facial hair is so very very awful but…also an episode which happily challenges the show’s and the audience’s own assumptions.

klingons

Klingon extras just not even trying

*[Tuesday for me when it appears on the blog, but maybe Monday elsewhere]

Review: All Systems Red – The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells

I’m late to the party for this tense, action filled novella. So far this is the only Martha Wells book I’ve read but I can see why her name keeps appearing among SF fans recommending books.

There is nothing particularly new or original here, just some classic SF tropes artfully combined and a story executed with a confident styles.

“Murderbot” is the secret name that an artificial security cyborg names itself. A mix of organic and mechanical components, Murderbot likes to keep their human face hidden both figuratively and literally. Despite the name (explained within the text), their main desire is some peace and quiet so they can catch up on episodes of their favourite drama “Sanctuary Moon”.

The property of a faceless planet owning corporation, Murderbot has been leased to provide security for a survey team scoping out the commercial potential of an alien planet. What neither the survey or the corporation realize is that Murderbot has hacked their own governance system and despite their impeccable behaviour is in reality a heavily armed rogue cyborg.

Despite some dark plots, murders and monstrous local fauna, this is a very compassionate story. Beyond Murderbot themselves, the individual characterisation isn’t deep but Wells quickly establishes a feel for what the team Murderbot is protecting is like. A mix of well meaning but wary people, the relationship between the survey team and Murderbot has a strong and plausible arc that gives the story some real soul.

Really very nicely done.