A deeper look at The Rise of Skywalker (spoilers)

In the final episode of the Disney+ Star Wars Series The Mandalorian, there is an almost perfect encapsulation of the Star Wars aesthetic. Without spoiling a wholly different Star Wars property too much, there’s a point where the good-guys are escaping the bad guys and they reach a river of lava. Indeed, it is basically a canal of lava i.e. it is a structural part of the town the good guys are fleeing from. Now, within the Star Wars universe where people habitually carry stuff on palettes that hover or build impressive megastructures in out of the way places, there are many options for navigating a river of lava. In this example there is a barge sitting in the lava. At the back of the barge is a sort of astromech droid but the barge and droid have become a bit mired in crusted lava and ash and it takes some effort (and blasters) to get the whole thing moving. Once in motion, the droid springs to life, awoken by the barge moving again. It springs up on two spindly (and atypical) legs and sprouts spindly arms and then starts punting the barge down the river using a great big pole.

I felt like applauding. The episode, directed by Taika Waititi, had encapsulated a central element of the Star Wars aesthetic. It is a galaxy with fundamentally oddly distributed technology, often used in ways that only just barely make any sense and in a highly localised way and even then requiring us to imagine that things like lava* (or air or gravity) work very differently than we imagine.

Star Wars is not built to withstand rational analysis and never has been. It all makes about as much sense as the lava punting astromech droid and always has. That should be liberating. Star Wars operates on a kind of rule-of-cool rather than systemic consistency but happily blends technology and magic seamlessly.

Yet Star Wars is an oddly highly constrained series of films (associated properties much less so). In principle almost anything can happen and visually and on a purely incidental level almost anything can. Yet structurally and within its plotting Star Wars is not an anything-can-happen sort of show.

Which takes me to Rise of Skywalker, a film which often meanders and yet feels highly constrained. In this regard it is one of the most Star Wars of the Star Wars movies. Spoilers follow.

Continue reading “A deeper look at The Rise of Skywalker (spoilers)”

It’s interesting who else has a troll problem

As Vox Day has been increasingly distancing himself from the world of science fiction and dedicating more of his time to tilting at the windmills of large tech-platforms, I’ve been taking less of an interest in his antics. However, as I was writing about trolls yesterday it is appropriate to write about a different troll problem today.

It seems Vox is beset by a troll problem. Having spent a bit of mind-numbing time looking at various Reddit threads and some incoherent You Tube videos, it is fair to use the term ‘troll’. We aren’t talking about argued responses to Vox Day’s behaviour but rather people clearly trying to wind the guy up. Politically the stuff is coming from the same cess-pit of anti-Semitism and conspiracy theories as Vox’s base. However, the dank-meme subculture was a ready recruiting ground for Vox Day’s brand of extreme white nationalism for years, so attacks from this direction are interesting politically.

The substantive complaint is around Day’s “Unauthorised TV”: a subscription video service that is part of his alternative tech platform plan. The scenario is a familiar one to readers here: Day announced a big bold plan that will a numerous features (like the buttons of the Open-Office Mouse) and will end up as a rival to mainstream equivalents (just as Castalia House was supposed to surpass Tor). There is a flurry of activity and recruitment and money raising (again, think of Voxopedia). An actual, tangible minimum viable product genuinely is delivered (again, Voxopedia) but it is substantially less than the original vision. Don’t worry! All those other features are on the way, the true believers are told and maybe there is more money raised. The amazing features never eventuate and again, consider Voxopedia remains jut a clumsy, vandalised copy of Wikipedia that a tiny number of editors struggle to stop drifting further out of date — none of the amazing capabilities (such as different versions of articles based on you political position) have ever eventuated and they never will.

The same seems to be true of Unauthorised TV. I say ‘seems’ because obviously I’m not subscribing and also I didn’t track what was originally promised. Defenders of Vox Day can correctly point out that the basic promise is delivered (e.g. Castalia House genuinely did publish actual books, with covers and a modicum of copy-editing) and detractors can point out the gulf between the reality and the fever-dream ambitions. [Speaking of which, I wonder what happened to that comic book movie…]

The broader context is the deeper divisions within the alt-right. In particular the current strength around the so called “groypers”, the latest iteration of extreme nationalists with a cartoon frog obsession who are associated with the latest white nationalist leader Nick Fuentes (https://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Nick_Fuentes ). The other element is Vox Day’s alliance with the increasingly unstable Owen Benjamin (see here for earlier coverage https://camestrosfelapton.wordpress.com/2019/10/25/vox-day-sort-of-denies-he-is-a-flat-earther/ ).

Alt-right figures follow what I call a dark-wizards rule. Being territorial and ideologically anti-social (not the same as personally anti-social) and dogmatically committed to clear social hierarchies, you can’t have two of them in the same general space unless it is in a lord-vassal* (or if you prefer, master-apprentice) arrangement. Where somebody like Vox Day maintains patterns of allies it is where those allies have their own environmental niches and where they can offer each other things transactionally (e.g. Milo Yiannopolous, Mike Cernovich or Stephan Molyneaux) and where they may even ostensibly have marginally less similar politics.

So Fuentes rise in popularity was going to lead to a feud with Vox Day, which is what happened but slowly and with an intermediate feud between Owen Benjamin and Fuentes first. The details of the feuding don’t really matter as they weren’t questions of substance and Owen Benjamin is incoherent even by the standards of a whole subculture of incoherence.

Skipping forward in time. Reddit (particularly sections dedicated to Owen Benjamin) and various YouTube channels (the people concerned hop around accounts a LOT because of repeated bans and rule violations) have got it in for Vox Day big time. I’ve seen nothing new here** (these aren’t people doing original research) and there’s no deep ideological difference, it is just a mish-mash of stuff (I even saw a screen-gab of a page from here included) and stupid nicknames and homophobic insults (and random anti-Semitism). In short: trolls…but trolls aiming their trolling at a guy who tried to weaponise trolling.

On Friday matters must have come to a head for Vox Day and he announced an ultimatum:

“I’m giving Davey Crocko, RealOwenBenjamin, ultrafuzzyforeigner, and the rest of the Unauthorized-hating gamma trolls on Reddit and YouTube 24 hours to come clean, declare their real identities, admit their actions, and thereby avoid having the wrath of the VFM and the Legal Legion of Evil crash down upon their heads.”

http://voxday.blogspot.com/2019/12/24-hours-trolls.html [link for reference – not recommended to follow it]

Whether that is an idle threat or has some substance I don’t know but the reaction from the trolls was derisive. Day is also claiming that there have been some sort of cyber attacks on some of the tech services. I’ve no way of ascertaining whether there is any truth in those claims and there are zero people involved in this fuss who could be regarded as a reliable source.

In a substantial dose of even more unwitting irony, Day himself is now bemoaning the quality of online discourse these days:

“In what is a crushing refutation of libertarian theory, the Internet and the devolution of what were once civilized anonymous discussion spaces on bulletin boards and CompuServe have clearly demonstrated that Man cannot handle the freedom of a perceived lack of accountability.”

http://voxday.blogspot.com/2019/12/the-troll-wars.html

He’s also concerned about how there’s no way forward other than legalistic means:

“No matter how we react – and notice that we did ignore it for months until events yesterday rendered that impossible – there has never been anything to it. By this bizarrely twisted illogic, people only react to true accusations, against which stands the entire history of written and case law dealing with defamation, slander, and libel.”

http://voxday.blogspot.com/2019/12/an-interesting-perspective.html

Which takes me back to a point I have made before. The SFWA and later the WSFS membership absolutely did the right thing in the end by taking an uncompromising response to Vox Day’s antics. Following his OWN advice on how to handle those whose only aim is to act in bad-faith and disrupt an organisation and the discourse within an organisation, is to not attempt to reason or become further embroiled in a bad-faith discussion.

tl;dr obnoxious people are shouting at each other.

*[See also the distinct pecking order within the Sad Puppies]

**[Aside from one point: there is a claim that the video service Day is promoting is actually using Vimeo’s infrastructure. Which is a bit ‘so what?’ However, the argument is that this disproves that Day is spending the money on a tech platform independent of the mainstream tech platforms.]

Sun over Sydney

In the photo it looks yellow but it was more red/orange to my eyes. I can’t help thinking of the second series of Stephen Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant books, where the inhabitants of the corrupted land have to look at the sun’s aura at dawn to find out what kind of horrors the day will bring. Nothing quite as terrible but it’s definitely going to be a poor air-quality day.

The good news is that a lot of the smoke is from strategic burning back over the past week. Christmas week was actually quite cool and there was sporadic rain — not enough to put out the fires but enough to allow firefighters to prepare for the coming week when the heatwave returns.

Goodreads’ Troll Problem

Goodreads, the book review site, is about thirteen years old and has had systemic troll problem for most of those years. Matters had reached crisis proportions way back in 2012 (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Goodreads#Competition_and_review_fairness ). Some of the issues arose not from trolling as such but from the inevitable conflict between authors and readers when assessing the content of books (e.g. see https://www.salon.com/2013/10/23/how_amazon_and_goodreads_could_lose_their_best_readers/ )

You would think that over that period of time Goodreads would have developed some robust systems and processes for dealing with trolls and abuse. After all, you would imagine that a review site descending into a slime pit would inevitably lead to both authors and readers looking elsewhere. That does not seem to be the case.

Notably, author Patrick S Tomlinson is currently being targetted by a sustained cyberstalking attack on Goodreads. Multiple fake accounts are leaving insulting reviews of a book of his that has not yet been published (not even as an ARC). The fake accounts have been quite blatantly using fake names and identities, including a fake account pretending to be Otis Chandler one of the founders of Goodreads.

Another author targetted for harassment and identity theft is former SFWA President Cat Rambo:

With little moderation and few tools available for reporting fake accounts or harassment, a coordinated troll attack can be very difficult to stifle even when the reviews are absurdly and blatantly false.


ETA for additional context:

Review: Years and Years

Christmas time is a handy time for catching up on books and series I had intended to watch earlier in the year. Luckily for me the BBC/HBO miniseries Years and Years was streaming in full on the Australian broadcaster SBS.

Written by Russell T Davis famed for his groundbreaking series Queer as Folk and as showrunner for the revival of Doctor Who, the six episode mini-series combines many familiar aspects of his earlier work into an unusual format.

Following the extended Lyons family from 2019 to 2029, the show extrapolates (often wildly) the current state of the world into the next decade. Using the lives and fortunes of a Manchester family as the lens to watch social, technological and political change, Davis taps into multiple themes including LGBTQI issues, immigration, transhumanism and political populism.

Beyond the Lyons there is only one other recurring character who isn’t a friend or partner. Emma Thompson sports a northern accent as the frankly spoken Vivienne Rook: initially as a business woman who shoots to fame for swearing on telly but then as an increasingly Trumpian would-be political saviour of Britain, as all around the world gets more alarming and unstable.

Fans of the Davis years of Doctor Who will recognise many of the themes he explored in the David Tennant years. The rise of Harold Saxon as Prime Minister has echoes in how Davis shows political change impacting a family (but this time with more mundane causes that the machinations of The Master). However, the more obvious comparison is with the alternate-destiny dystopia of the Donna Noble centred episode Turn Left, where the obliteration of London leads the UK to slide into a world of labour camps and mass murder (only hinted at).

In Years and Years, Davis depicts that same concept of Britain sliding almost genteelly into a society of death camps over the course of a decade. A nuclear attack on China, precipitates a financial crisis, authoritarianism (and LGBTQI persecution) in Eastern Europe precipitates a new wave of asylum seekers, changes in the weather lead to mass flooding, power cuts (possibly manipulated by hackers) lead to further economic disruption and finally a flu epidemic creates further chaos.

This is very much political science fiction with the politics underlined and in bold but told through the complexities of a large family: two brothers and two sisters, their grandmother, spouses, children and lovers. The impacts of social change are always grounded in the personal experiences of people trying to live their lives.

There are subtle shifts of focus over time also. Initially, Daniel Lyons (Russell Tovey) has the strongest plot line, with his role as a housing officer leading him into a deep relationship with Viktor Goraya — an asylum seeker who has escaped persecution of gay men in Ukraine. The eldest sister, Edith, only appears in video calls in the first episode, as she is a globe trotting political activist until a dramatic event brings her home. Bethany (the daughter of Stephen Lyons and his wife Celeste) we first meet as a withdrawn teenager, who hides behind technology and aspires to download her consciousness into a computer. Bethany’s journey as a character is the one I found most interesting and also the one, that despite it’s trauma had the most optimism.

It is not easy viewing, particular as we stare into the beginning of the 2020’s. The final episode takes an uncharacteristically optimistic turn towards the end (implausibly at times I felt) but even with that, it isn’t a show to watch if you need a distraction from your fears for the future.

Combining slice-of-life family drama and science fiction is not something we often see on television. Years and Years isn’t always successful at mixing the two genres but by resting the show on personal experiences played out by a strong cast, the combination works.