I’ve found the most brain numb argument against marriage equality yet

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First a quick recap on the current state of marriage equality in Australian. While there appears to be a majority of MPs in favour of marriage equality in federal parliament, the number in favour within the ruling coalition is a minority. This could be solved by having a ‘conscience’ vote but the ruling party had a manifesto commitment to a referendum. The referendum is basically a way of avoiding a split between the centre-right and conservative wings of the Liberal Party – the confusingly named main right-leaning Australian party. Unable to get their plans for a referendum through the Senate, the government settled on having a non-binding, postal “survey”. The survey has a simple Yes – No format with “Yes” being the marriage equality option.

The postal survey/vote is now well underway.

On my wanderings through rightwing SF/F arenas I came across this post on Facebook:

Jason Rennie is the Australian-based SF writer/editor associated with Superversive, and formerly the editor of ‘Sci-Phi Journal’.

The argument essentially boils down to saying that if libertarians support marriage equality (i.e. giving a section of society the freedom to do a thing that most other people can do) then they’ll be taking away the freedom of the people who don’t support marriage equality to not recognise some marriages. In other words, if libertarians support freedom for group X then that infringes the rights of those who don’t want group X to have that freedom.

I think he may have just killed libertarianism – and it was already looking unwell.

He’s worried about the “massive expansion of state force” that will arise when…the state protects the rights of its citizens against those who think they shouldn’t have those rights? Which, correct me all if I’m wrong, used to be the one function of the state that libertarians at least claimed in theory to support.

He doesn’t take the logical step into the obvious corollary of his argument: that therefore banning even more groups from getting married would somehow make everybody freer. I would if we would volunteer a group with which he identifies to be a starting point of this bizarre root to greater freedom?

I suspect we’ll never find out. Anyway, if you are Australian and haven’t voted yet then don’t forget to do so!

Fantasy Terrain and the Book of the New Sun

I’m wandering off on a tangent from this post. That post was mainly considering geographic elements as plot elements in Tolkien and Tolkienesque works. Having reached lakes and oceans my head went to Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun. Now I haven’t read it in a long time, therefore beware of errors and misunderstandings on my part. Also, if you haven’t the books then there are sort of spoilers (in so far as it can have spoilers – arguably the specific events don’t matter). [Also: the auto-correct keeps changing “Urth” to “Ruth”. I think I got them all but if you see a reference to Ruth, I didn’t add a new character – it should say “Urth”.]

Arguably, the novels in The Book of the New Sun aren’t fantasy at all but science fiction. The setting is the far future and the story concerns alien intervention in the long-term future of Earth (or rather Urth). But let us not stand on ceremony or taxonomy today. For most intents and purposes this is a fantasy story about one man (with a very big sword) on a journey of discovery which involves some freaky monsters and technology that may as well be magic. It is also late enough in the evolution of sub-genres that Wolfe knew what he was doing when he deployed tropes and themes from both science fiction and heroic fantasy.

The story is also another good example of the deployment of terrain and geography to shape the plot and atmosphere of the story while being geographically plausible. Wolfe doesn’t invent a terrain though, instead, he borrows one wholesale.

It isn’t hard to recognise a chunk of South America in the books. Various clues point to the setting being in the Southern Hemisphere (warm jungles to the north for example). With only a little more thought the geography more-or-less matches a cross-section running from (plausibly) Buenos Aires* to Bolivia and Peru. Starting a huge sprawling city and that mouth of a great river, the story takes in grasslands, jungle, and huge mountains. There is a city that like La Paz clings to the sides of a steep valley, there are Incan like ruins and enormous mountains.

Late in his journey, Severian finds himself at a huge inland lake high on a plateau that is indistinguishable from lake Titicaca down to communities on floating reed islands. Although oddly it is possibly the body of water in the novels that is the most straightforwardly a body of water. Elsewhere, the novel treats rivers and lakes as boundaries between earth and the heavens. ‘Heavens’ here working both in the sense of an afterlife but also in the sense of the realm of stars. The metaphor is taken literally by Severian who does not clearly distinguish between space travel and ocean voyages and further unlined by spaceships apparently resembling sailing ships (made clearer in the quasi-sequel Urth of the New Sun).

In the story, life/death is marked by an early event in which Severian nearly drowns in the river as a child (or maybe does drown). Later, in the story when he falls into an ornamental lake he rescues a young woman (Dorcas) who, from context and based on later events, is probably a revived corpse (and possibly his grandmother).

The cosmic aspects of bodies of water appear in encounters between Severian and being connected with the Undines – enormous cosmic beings whose role in events is unclear. They appear to be antagonists but on occasions appear to be helping Severian.

Looking at my last post on fantasy geography there are differences and similarities.

Mountains are not obstacles as such. This also fits with a different cultural perspective on mountains. Whereas Tolkien treats mountains as wilderness, the mountains in the Book of the New Sun contain aspects of civilisation. In a memorable section, Severian discovers the mausoleum/sanctuary of Typhon – a figure from a more assertive and aggressive period of Urth’s history. The location is deep in the mountains and is a literal pinnacle and a metaphorical pinnacle of technology.

Mountains could be just mountains but plot geography also means that mountains echo multiple tropes based on cultural preconceptions about different mountain ranges. Tolkien’s mountains are a British perspective on the European Alps – barriers that separate one country from the next. Wolfe draws on the Andes which were the home to an extensive civilisation that used the varying vertical climate to create an empire that could span north-to-south. The Himalayas have their own set of tropes and myths and cultural stereotypes based on everything from actual history to Orientalism and colonial distortions.

On the other hand, forests play a similar role to Tolkien’s forests in that they are a place of both danger and transformation. In particular, Severian changes in nature in forest/jungle encounters but forests are also used to indicate a change in other ways.

The life/death aspect of journey’s underground is less distinct and overshadowed by the more overt life/death aspect of rivers and lakes in the books. There are two (that I can recall) cases of a journey underground. The clearest one is in The Claw of Conciliator when Severian is tricked into entering a cave. Inside the cave are strange man-apes creatures, ruins and some other huge thing which we never see. Although there are revelations about the possible powers Severian has gained, there is an odd subversion here. Rather than being changed, the journey in the cave returns Severian back to the story and the events which sent him to the cave. In the same book, Severian later finds himself imprisoned in the royal palace The House Absolute, which exists mainly underground. Here, the life/death/rebirth elements play out in some ways more conventionally (in so far as the book can be said to do anything conventionally other than its sexism).

The books do not come with a map and despite being a story that layers puzzles on metaphors on lies on top of time paradoxes and theology, the geography and the physical journey are uncomplex and plausible. The setting has a city on a river near an ocean and inland there are more settlements and eventually mountains. To the north is a jungle and a war. The terrain changes with the story and with the journey. The journey itself is a huge loop physically (ignoring metaphorical and time-travelling loops of other kinds).

*[Although one notable map places the city of Nessus on the Pacific side of the Andes]

Tim’s Legal Updates

[Scene: a quiet evening just outside the southeast conservatory of Felapton Towers currently relocated to the former home of Doctor Morbius on Altair IV]

Timothy the Talking Cat: I’m going to sue France.

Camestros: Perhaps it is the pleasant evening weather echoing a summer that has since passed or perhaps it is this third tumbler of gin and tonic but I will release myself of my vow and humour your random context-free outburst with a response. Why are you going to sue the French government? They have deep pockets and scary French lawyers at their disposal.

Timothy: The French Government? I’m not going to sue the French Government! Why would I sue the French Government?

Camestros: But…OK, do you mean that you are going to sue the French people in general?

Timothy: I think you’ve had too much gin.

Camestros: I suspect I haven’t had enough.

Timothy: I’m going to sue FRANCE. France as the thing that is itself France. Not ‘the French’ not the French Government. Not any kind of the adjectival case of France but France strictly as a noun.

Camestros: Ah, you’ve been at the Krell machine again and given yourself a brain boost, haven’t you?

Timothy: I may have partaken a smidgen. How can you tell?

Camestros: Never mind, please continue so I can at least get some hint of what kind of monster from your id will be attacking our defences later.

Timothy: Well I was reading Plato…

Camestros: Hold on I just need to pour more gin.

Timothy: Do you not want tonic in that?

Camestros: I suspect not…

Timothy: Anyway, as you are aware this reality is but a mere shadow of a more perfect reality.

Camestros: I’m aware of the concept…

Timothy: And what we consider abstract concepts, such as a circle, are the true reality – one that we perceive but dimly as if we were enslaved being watching shadows upon a cave wall.

Camestros: Carry on Polonius, why are you suing France?

Timothy: I think you mean Plotinus, the third-century AD Neoplatonist. Polonius is the character from Hamlet.

Camestros: Oh dear…your id monster is going to be bigger than usual. But while we wait for the invisible beclawed two-footed manifestation of your squirrel-phobia, you still haven’t said why you are going to sue France.

Timothy: Well the key issue is not the government of France, or its geography, or its people but rather the paradigmatic ultimate ideal of France.

Camestros: Yes, but WHY do you want to sue France at all!

Timothy: I…oh…I mean, I wanted to sue France before I went into the machine. I was trying to find a clever way of doing it.

Mr Atomic: WARNING! WARNING! Perimeter alert!!

Camestros: OMG! That monster looks just like Steve Bannon!

[Exit pursued by Timothy’s id monster]

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The Plot Elements of Fantasy Maps

There is a new good article on fantasy maps at The Map Room Blog: http://www.maproomblog.com/2017/09/the-territory-is-not-the-map/ The point being that much of the discussion of fantasy maps is not the map as such but rather the implausible territories that they depict. Fair point. However, I wanted to loop back to the post I made on the simplified Middle Earth map. A successful fantasy geography requires the terrain to shape the story and The Lord of the Rings does this well. It matters to the story whether the characters are in forests or towns/villages or mountains.

Roads, paths trails

These imply places where the story covers a greater distance. Travel is either uneventful or involves encounters with others. Leaving the path implies not only danger but a shift from the main objective. They are also (random encounters aside) boring but may also imply more personal conversation between characters. Outside of fantasy, a road trip has its own conventions and expectation of bonding between travellers.

Forests

Forests require finding a way through. As noted in the earlier post, in both The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, forests are transformative to characters. They can both be benign and threatening, magical and spooky. There is an implication of things being hidden – characters are hidden from pursuit but also things of power hidden among the trees (consider Merry and Pippin fleeing into Fangorn to escape the Uruk-Hai and encountering Treebeard).

Hills

Hills are minor obstacles, vantage points and places of note. They can be sanctuaries, objectives or scenes of battles. Weathertop is the definitive hill in Lord of the Rings but Bag End is also in/on a hill. People have built defensible settlements on hills for millennia.

Mountains

Are either major obstacles or really big hills 🙂 By “really big hills” I mean examples from Tolkien such as The Lonely Mountain, Minas Tirith and Mount Doom. These are singular locations that serve as objectives to be reached and which contain structures and may also be scenes of battle. Sets of mountains, on the other hand, are major obstacles that divide the terrain into different sections. They force characters to make decisions about the direction they need to take. In both The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, the Misty Mountains divide the terrain and the story.

Mountain passes

One way to deal with the obstacle of mountains is to find a way through and over. A mountain pass is a forced choice for characters and a physical challenge. I can’t recall an epic fantasy where the characters suffer altitude sickness but that alone could fell a mighty hero who isn’t properly acclimatised. Accidental death is a plausible danger as is a need for shelter.

Caves, and journeys underground

Caves are naturally spooky and comforting as shelter – natural houses but also possibly homes for various beasties. Journeys underground are something else. Western myth (and beyond Western myth) associates passage through an underworld with a spiritual journey of the soul. This evokes ideas such as the Christian hell but also pre-Christian underworlds (Hel’s realm, Hades’s realm), mystery cults (and Orpheus’s journey to the underworld) or pre-scientific notions about the journey of the Sun at night.

Like forests, a journey underground is transformative. In The Hobbit, Bilbo finds the one ring and encounters Gollum. In Lord of the Rings, Gandalf dies (ish) and the tone of the story changes. A journey underground naturally hits mythic resonances with death-and-rebirth transformations. A cave (even if it is just a shallow cave) is a potential gateway to a world within a world.

Rivers

Rivers are perhaps the most flexible geographic element of a fantasy terrain. They are minor obstacles (the require fording), they are locations (bridges and ford are specific places you need to get to), scenes of battle (a good place to stop an enemy), they are also major obstacles and divide the terrain into regions. Also, they are a means of transport and present more rapid transition from one location to the next. In The Hobbit, the barrel trip moves the story rapidly from Mirkwood to Laketown. In Lord of the Rings the trip down the Anduin is slower but shifts the characters from one level of the map to a different level. Consequently, rivers have a transformative quality for characters and story in a way not dissimilar to forest and journey’s underground but at the same time have road-trip elements as well including random encounters.

Oceans

Are the ultimate obstacle and often delineate the setting of the story. Where stories cross oceans, the ocean separates different kinds of territories (a good exception is Joe Abercrombie’s Half a King where the ocean is more like a highway for a Viking like people). Alternatively, an ocean is a setting for an archipelago of which the paradigmatic example is Earthsea and acts more like the default empty bits of other maps.

Ships and ocean journeys

Ships combine elements of both road-trips and towns. A ship is a location and a means of transport. Characters are placed together and the journey covers significant distance punctuated by conversation and random events. Tolkein only uses ship journey as bridges between life and after-life. Lord of the Rings has ships only in two places – Aragorn brings the dead spirits to relieve Gondor (but the ship journey is not itself depicted in detail) and at the end, Frodo leaves Middle-Earth from the Grey Havens by ship to journey to the undying lands. In the Silmarillion ships also play a role moving people from being closer or further away from the gods. The great ship-travelling civilisation of Numenor is one that lies halfway between the more earthly and the divine.

Islands, lakes, islands in lakes and other things

I’ll save for another time and I’ll need to branch out into other fantasy stories. 🙂

 

Weird Internet Ideas: The “Free” Speech of the Bully

It has been interesting watching the right struggle with their concept of free speech recently. Over the past few years “free speech” had been a rallying cry for far-right trolls demanding sufficient latitude on online platforms to lie, bully and harass others. As such trolls navigate willingly and unwillingly to their own bespoke platforms, they discovered that they also needed rules and restrictions on how they interacted. I discussed some specifics in this post but I wanted to revise some things that I said then.

Meanwhile, in the arena of American professional sport, players are kneeling during the playing of their national anthem in a very dignified and respectful protest against killings by the police. Donald Trump (who strange as it may seem is President of the USA) has called for players protesting in this way to be fired. The right is piling on in support of Donald Trump despite this being clearly a case of the US government (in the form of its highest officer) attempting to stifle the speech of citizens. It is notable how rarely the right even mentions what these players are protesting and instead claiming they are protesting against “the flag” or the “national anthem” rather than “the state murdering citizens”. It as if circumstances have conspired to create the easiest ethical test for anybody claiming to support freedom (a short, non-violent, respectful protest against state-sanctioned killings) and the right consistently failing that test and siding with the suppression of freedom.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump’s Department of Justice is attempting to access identifying information from internet providers on subscribers to an anti-Donald Trump website – a move that should alarm everybody, indeed a move that should alarm everybody on the right if they stopped for a moment and considered that the POTUS won’t be a far-right Republican forever.

And for an extra topping of ironic-juxtaposition sauce, Jess Sessions is unhappy at the idea of people protesting him when he gives a lecture on free-speech: http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_slatest/2017/09/26/jeff_sessions_speech_condemned_by_georgetown_law_professors_who_kneeled.html

Ethicists and political scientist often struggle with making sense of the apparent contradictions on the far right or within fascism. In part, this is because there is a tendency both within logic and within ethical reasoning to assume a degree of universality within principles. When the alt-right et al says “free speech” it has only the appearance of an appeal to a general principle whereas the principle they are appealing to is more akin to this:

“I (the specific rightwing individual) or my kind (flexibility defined) should be able to say what we like, when we like without any restriction and without any criticism or protest or consequences as a result.”

The “free-speech” they crave is not a universal for everybody but rather a specific lack of restriction on them which in turns implies restrictions on the speech of others. Understanding this resolves the apparent contradictions in somebody like Vox Day demanding the right to call innocent people ‘pedophiles’ on the internet while also demanding that social media platforms do their utmost to prevent others calling him a ‘pedophile’ for similar political motives. Or, take Andrew Torba the CEO of Gab praising Donald Trump’s call for protestors to be sacked while claiming his site is a champion of free speech. Torba has rationalised this publicly by saying that the protests are protected speech only “from the government” and not from “fans/biz owners” even though he doesn’t make this distinction when it comes to the “biz owners” of Twitter.

The logic knots come not from their underlying concept of free speech (see above) – which is nasty & evil but not logically inconsistent – but rather from their need to appear to be appealing to some kind of universal principle. Universal principles despite their abstract nature are more rhetorically appealing because they offer something to everybody. Torba, in particular, can’t sell a business on the principle of “free speech for specifically Andrew Torba,” as that offers his consumers nothing. Vox Day is more clear that his comment sections are only ‘free speech’ for his own in-crowd but still tries to claim that he is following some kind of less solipsistic principle because of his flawed cosplay as an intellectual.

Yet this flim-flam around “free speech” works for them. It draws in libertarians and some liberal defenders. It also appeals on a more intuitive level. Having to be careful about what you say is stressful – it taxes your working memory. Yet in any sane society, we all have to navigate how we talk to people around us just out of basic manners. Which takes us to the idea that marries the faux free-speech narrative, the alt-right, trump and trolls. The principle they want is not free speech but bullies speech – the principle of all bullies that they get to say what they want and everybody else doesn’t.

I Don’t Have Much to Say on the German Election Results

There is a lot not to like about Angela Merkel and the gains by the far-right are troublesome but by the standards of everybody else (e.g. Brexit, Trump), the outcome could have been far, far worse https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/sep/25/germany-elections-merkel-coalition-government

It is sad though that we need to be relieved when a modern democratic country manages to not undermine itself at the polls. Change has become alarming but at the same time change is vital to democracy.

Thoughts on Star Trek Discovery Episodes 1 & 2

When I first heard the premise for Star Trek: Discovery I was disappointed. The show is set marginally before the original series relative to the broad continuity of the TV shows. As a decision, it implied the kind of navel-gazing or over-reverence to the original material that ends in both stagnation and a confused need for re-invention. It is the contradiction that leads to repetitive reboots of superhero origin stories but with odd new twists. I assume the thinking with Discovery was that they wanted to re-introduce viewers to the established Star Trek galaxy by having the protagonists encounter familiar elements while changing those elements so as not to be too predictable.

So you end up with a setting that is familiar but different but in a way that contains no real surprises and which makes the differences jarring. Why not just set the story AFTER the period of The Next Generation/DS9/Voyager shows? Create a sense of civilisation moved on? Perhaps here the baggage of all those shows felt too much – too many big bads (the Borg, the Dominion etc) too many alien antagonists (the Ferengi, the now unfortunately named Cardassians). The galactic quadrants had become too busy and too packed with rubber headed aliens. By setting the series back just before the original series the show could make the Klingons the bad guys again.

It’s not fair to compare this decision with the Doctor Who reboot because despite their similar age the shows don’t treat continuity in the same way. However, Russell T Davies made a smart move from which Discovery could have learnt. Set a new series in a time that follows a catastrophe that creates both a bridge to the previous series, and allows the viewers to re-encounter familiar protagonists in a new way. That doesn’t imply a new Star Trek would need to have a post-apocalyptic vibe, rather some sort of event that disrupted galactic civilisations sufficiently that the Federation is needing to rebuild (a gamma-ray burst, a contagion that spreads via transporter beams, a big-bad alien did more damage than usual).

Discovery hasn’t taken that option but the setting kind of looks like it did. The technology is both old and new, the spaceships look both updated and more grungy, some aliens are now more familiar and closer to humans (e.g. the Vulcans) while others have become even more alien and Star Fleet understands them less (the Klingons). The whole feel of the show implies a setting where change has occurred but which claims that it is about changes that will occur and I find that somewhat annoying.

Visually the show looks fantastic. The capacity to produce a SF TV show with stunning visuals has grown tremendously. An alien desert planet in episode 1 looks like more than just a sandy patch. An EVA to an alien artefact in the accretion disk of a binary star system consuming itself makes little astrophysical sense but again looks suitably spacey and has a nice echo with the first Star Trek film. [Minor spoiler] Episode 2 features a full-on multi-starship space battle and some very good action scenes. The new version of the Klingons are still rubber headed aliens but distinctly more alien looking.

Meanwhile, the phasers and the communicators are reverently remodelled versions of the ‘classic’ props. Which is fine but together it doesn’t make much sense. It feels like the story team (who want the setting to be distinctly just a few years before TOS) and the effects and design team (who want to show off all the new things that can be done) are at loggerheads. It works when what is showed is things that we didn’t see before but which have always been implied (e.g. episode 2 use the shields and force fields effectively as visuals and as part of the story on a damaged starship). It works less well when funky new things are added because they are cool (starship communications now included projecting hologram avatars right in front of you because that looks cool).

The Klingons speak Klingon and end up speaking a lot of Klingon – maybe a tad too much to be honest. Meanwhile, the Vulcans just look like Vulcans and the main protagonist Michael Burnham (more on the name below) is a human who was brought up as a Vulcan and looks a bit Vulcany. The unfortunate effect is that the nice aliens look more human than ever and the nasty aliens look even more alien than ever.

I don’t want to delve too much into the details of the story but I thought, despite all my griping above, that it was decent. It isn’t a spoiler to say that the first two episodes are about the federation re-encountering the Klingon Empire – the first episode’s cold open is a Klingon speech that reveals their anxiety about a growing menace and a “lie” that they see as an open threat: “We come in peace.” The story suffers a bit from wanting a sense of realism but then pitching events and circumstances that require a more generous suspension of disbelief.

Interspersed with the main story we also see more of the backstory of the central character. Michael Burnham is a human who has been raised by Vulcans – specifically Sarek, the guy who is Spock’s dad (although that connection is not mentioned in the show). Her name is giving the Scrappy-Doos conniptions because it is a boys name! (OMG! A girl with a boys name! I guess they’ve never met a Robin or a Cameron or an Ashley or a Meredith, heck isn’t the Gamergate mascot called Vivian?) Assuming that you can cope with the shocking news that there are women in the future called Michael, I really liked this character. She is a mess of contradictions and makes some very bad decisions and this aspect is where the show starts doing something genuinely different and interesting.

Now, it is only two episodes in but the approach here appears to be to follow a central character’s story through a set of events set in the Star Trek universe rather than to have a show that follows the standard Star Trek story structure. By the end of episode 2, the titular starship “Discovery” hasn’t appeared, nor has its captain and the central character is not in a good place. I think this is a smart decision. A planet/monster of the week show is something that other shows can do quite effectively (e.g. see Killjoys) on a smaller budget. More substantial story arcs make more sense for a pricey show on a streaming service (CBS’s own service in the US, Netflix for the rest of us – which is probably a better deal for the non-USAians). Showing us a character that fits with the Starfleet and Federation ethos but whose bad decisions drive the plot is a clever change.

Worth watching? If you already have a Netflix subscription, yes, definitely I’d say. Despite the annoying continuity/not-continuity element of the show, it looks good, it was nicely acted and the dialogue gets snappier (no laughs though). A strong attempt to do a serious space opera. For Americans, I don’t know what else the CBS streaming service has and I’m not sure I’d feel happy having paid for access JUST for this show. Your mileage may vary.