Monday, August 21, 2017

My Love/Hate Relationship with War

I remember as a kid watching the Black Sheep Squadron television series, about Marine Corps fighter pilots in World War II somewhere in the South Pacific. While I saw other shows set in war like MASH and Hogan’s Heroes, Black Sheep Squadron was the first series I watched that featured combat prominently (mostly from stock footage of airplanes zooming and sounds of machine gun fire). 

By the way, let me apologize for the length of this post up front—it’s not a quick read, which I don’t say to scare anyone away. But be aware.

I’d had other ideas about fighting before that, largely from Disney movies like Sleeping Beauty, in which Prince Phillip battles Maleficent-turned-dragon. That scene made a deep impression on me and as a kid I often imagined myself as the dragon-slaying knight, the warrior for goodness and truth.

But with Black Sheep Squadron, I imagined myself a fighter pilot, the personality of the knight riding in an aircraft cockpit. I also saw some classic WWII movies on TV, like The Dirty Dozen. I saw war and being a warrior as glorious. Who wouldn’t want to fight bad guys in a war?

I drew pictures of aircraft and naval battles in that period, lousy drawings really, but full of energy and excitement. My mother praised my efforts as kind mothers do, so I decided to send one of my drawings of a carrier battle between US and Japanese ships to my grandmother, expecting her to be as pleased as my mother was. Or even more pleased, because she had been a nurse during WWII and would appreciate my theme.

She wrote me back based on the picture I sent, telling me that war is horrible, that as a nurse she only one time witnessed an explosion tearing up the bodies of men, but once was all she needed. More than enough to know what war is like. Please stop drawing her pictures like that. 

I was genuinely shocked. What? War is not glorious? But the impression that letter made was short-lived.

Another note of discord came when I saw the movie A Bridge Too Far as a kid with my family (at a drive-in theater no less), based on a real operation in WWII, which featured defiant British troops isolated from help due to their parachute drop, with American troops fighting hard to come to their rescue. I thought I knew how that was going to turn out: YAY USA…but what the heck, the Brits wound up starving and out of ammo, many killed, forcing them to surrender? The US forces never able to link up with them? And Polish paratroopers getting shot while they were still in the air when they came down to help? 

I had no idea how to judge that and compare it to things like Black Sheep Squadron. For me, it formed a puzzle in my mind—what is war really like anyway? Is it pure horror? Or glorious?

In my teen years I was required to read The Red Badge of Courage at school, which was followed by commentary from a teacher who never had been to war, talking about the horrors of the Civil War. Like he would know, I thought. I also met some real veterans during that time, men who fought in Vietnam. Mostly, the Vietnam guys did not talk to me much about their experiences, though one did tell me that a moral man can only fight a war if it is to remove an evil greater than the war itself, like Hitler. Whereas a moral man will suffer intensely in a war that removed no evil. I listened and noted what I heard, but did not really understand. 

As a teenager I had a poster on my wall of fighter aircraft of the world and loved to read books about military gear and strategy. I even invented my own Role Playing Game I called The Elite which was about mercenaries and which mostly fixated on weapons and weapons damage. I often talked about joining the military and becoming a fighter pilot on my way to becoming an astronaut—which wasn’t a realistic ambition for me (I needed glasses but didn’t know it, among other issues) but it was in fact what I wanted out of life.

By the time I actually joined the Army Reserve, I was 21, married already and had become much more aware that the New Testament clearly commands “to turn the other cheek.” I’d laid aside my former dreams and hoped to be a foreign missionary or teacher. I joined the Army for the college money. I became a medical specialist because I hoped I would not actually have to violate the New Testament commandment not to kill, even though I was not really sure I knew what that meant.

Less than a year after I completed my training, Operation Desert Storm kicked off. I was activated and served in a hospital unit that deployed to the United Arab Emirates. We worked in a civilian hospital, but my unit lived on a patch of desert beside the hospital, at first in tents but later in trailers, which we had to defend with sandbag walls and guard towers, because the UAE never expelled the Iraqis who lived in their country and our threat of a terrorist attack was high. Doctors and nurses did not carry the weapons to defend the place—that fell on more junior Soldiers like me.

One night while on guard duty and armed with an M16, I saw a vehicle driving out around our compound. We had been instructed about car bombs and had a procedure (rules of engagement) established. If the car stayed a certain distance way, it was fine. The car hugged the edge of that perimeter. After a bit, it stopped. The driver got out and fished in his trunk, his engine partially facing me, so I could not see very well what he was doing. It occurred to be he could pull out a weapon and fire it at us. I faced for the first time the reality that being a Soldier means you might have to kill somebody, that being a medic or in a support specialty does not exclude you from that. (The guy drove off after a while, after I reported what I saw. In retrospect, I imagine the whole thing was set up by the Sergeant of the Guard to test how alert we were. But I didn’t think of that at the time.)

Though nothing happened, my take away from that experience is that war is not something light-hearted. It’s a serious business and I had committed myself to it if I should be needed, even though that’s not what I had understood myself to do when I enlisted.

Between 1991 and 2008, my next war, many things changed. Driven by my curiosity about the true nature of warfare, I’d read a lot more about it. I’d watched more war movies. I came to believe that “turning the other cheek” is not a command to non-violence, but a command to repudiate personal vengeance, which is not the same thing (that’s how I still read that commandment by the way). I had become an Army Reserve officer, in a unit that specialized in military training. I myself held a combat arms specialty—Field Artillery. The pendulum had definitely swung back in the direction of me seeing war as glorious, albeit with caveats that it could be awfully gruesome.

I went to Iraq as a “training support specialist” but wound up advising Iraqis and worked full-time with combat arms specialists in the armies and navies and air forces of many nations who were involved in Iraq, especially the British. I worked with a number of combat veterans and professional military with far more training in combat than I ever had. I knew a quite a lot about war at this point.

But a rocket attack that killed two people and wounded seventeen, in which my best friend was among the wounded and a good friend was killed, drove home the difference between knowing about war, and knowing war. Like a person imagining what a dish might taste like based on its ingredients, I could imagine what it would be like to lose a friend in a war. But tasting the dish is an altogether different experience. I did not see my dead friend that day, even though I helped with the wounded, because I helped with those already outside the gym whose roof had been penetrated by the rocket that exploded inside. I’m thankful for that, that I never saw Major Stuart Adam Wolfer dead. Though at the time, I felt guilt once I knew he died, as if I would have been somehow magically been able to make a difference if I’d been at his side.

Of course, you could say a rocket attack is not really combat. It’s a wartime event, like the London Blitz or something, but it isn’t facing off with an enemy and shooting. I was still in fact curious about what it would be like to do that.

In 2010-11, I served in Afghanistan, in a unit commanded by a Navy Seal and where I met and worked with Green Berets and Marine Special Forces and I also met some other elite troops (including French Foreign Legion a year later in Africa). By worked with I mostly mean I did planning with and helped them succeed by providing money for projects, because I was a Civil Affairs officer by then--not that I was a special operator myself. But I had dozens of conversations with people who had combat experience. I had a good sense of what they did. They were open to me in a way the Vietnam Vets I knew had not been—I think it’s because I wore the same uniform as them and took a small portion of the same risks.

But it was not until I served as a liaison officer to the Italian headquarters at Camp Arenas in Herat that I got the final piece of the picture of what war is like, the thing that made my curiosity about the true nature of war go away, convinced that while my nibble on the flavor of war had been a small one, it was enough. More than enough to know what war is really like.

I got the chance to visit an Italian compound in downtown Herat, Afghanistan, one dedicated to their version of Civil Affairs, in other words, a place inhabited by people who worked humanitarian projects in Afghanistan for the purpose of “targeting” or persuading key people to support NATO and ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) operations there. While there I enjoyed an authentic Italian pizza cooked in an oven for which the wood had been flown all the way from Italy (I’m not kidding—Italians take their cuisine seriously). I talked to people. I looked around the buildings. I waived at the serious Afghan guards hired on contract to protect the place. I noticed that the compound had a number of higher buildings around it, which I didn’t think about very much.

Six days later, while doing my part of the command briefing that constituted my main job as a liaison (it’s a side note, but I also helped write strategic plans for the Italians because it was easier for me to write in English than it was for them—and all NATO plans have to be in English), I heard about an attack on the compound I’d visited, in detailed briefing.

Insurgents had driven a car bomb to the gate and blew it up, killing a number of the Afghan contract guards I’d waved at. But then the insurgents expected to be able to storm the compound but couldn’t, since the rubble from a collapsed guardhouse blocked the hole they’d made in the gate. They also had taken over the surrounding tall buildings and shooters begin firing down into the compound. They grievously wounded an Italian captain I’d shared pizza with.  

A United States Air Force finance officer, one Captain Brasheer if I remember the spelling of his name right, climbed into the rubble and used the M16 he’d been issued to return fire. Not that he’d every spent much time with an M16, not that he had much chance to hit the enemy, but he did what he could. While under fire, US medics answered a MEDEVAC request and landed a helicopter, and at risk to their own lives rescued the Italian captain and some other people.

Outside the compound, the Afghan Army, once they were able to respond a few hours later, aided by US advisors, did what they were supposed to do—they charged up the stairs of the tall buildings around the compound and took out the attackers. But at least two attackers were wearing a suicide vests, which they detonated, killing a number of Afghan troops.

I knew this place as I heard the events reported, the exact layout. I knew the people involved. You could dismiss what the insurgents did as an act of terrorism, but it wasn’t. They attacked a military compound, even if one that acted as a center of humanitarian assistance. They killed armed people and their attack showed military planning and tactical savvy, even though it largely failed (and as a result was never reported in the USA). What they did was an act of war, even though the only people they killed were other Afghans.

And so I realized with full emotional flavor what the nature of war is. War is human beings using all the cleverness God gave them and perverting it to the task of killing other human beings—planning, training, designing, building, all for the purpose of doing horrific harm. War is fundamentally destructive and a violation of how God intended humans to act.

Is there glory in war? YES. The medics landing under fire. The finance officer climbing rubble with an M16. People risking their lives to protect others. Yes, that is glorious. But it’s a flavor of glory so bitter that it does not justify war. War can contain glory, but the horror is too great to fight just for the sake of the glory, no matter what fictional Klingons and the warrior cultures they were based on thought. War is NOT fundamentally glorious, even though it contains these horrible moments of greatness.

It may sound strange to some of my readers, but I felt especially sick about an aspect of what I heard that I did not have any connection to at all, the Afghan soldiers who got blown up. Because it occurred to my imagination that the ones who got killed were the ones in front, the first ones to reach the suicide bomber. Which would be the ones who were in the best shape as they ran up the stairs—the ones who were trying the hardest, the ones who cared the most. 

And that is part of the perverse nature of warfare—it often kills those who are trying the hardest, those who are among the best of people. You have to pass a physical to be ALLOWED to fight in a modern military. While courts-martial records clearly show some bad people are in the services, that’s the exception, not the rule. In general, modern military training encourages positive virtues and tends to weed out the worst of the worst. The best of people go forth and run the risk of death or of being horribly mangled, while the slugs of society stay at home and collect the benefits paid for in somebody else’s blood. That’s an awful introversion of justice, how things should never be, but actually are. Which is a reason to hate war.

But what shall we do when the bomb goes off and the tower collapses into rubble next to us? Shall we find a hole to hide in because we’re afraid? Or shall we refuse to fight, because war is a horror and we believe we cannot participate in it? Or shall we climb the rubble with Captain Brasheer and do what we can, because there is nothing else we can do, because if we don’t protect these people, who will?

While I deeply respect people who acknowledge the reality of evil in the world but believe it’s wrong for them to add to the evil by fighting in a physical war, I have chosen a different path. I became a Soldier a long time ago. I am one willing to climb the rubble.

People often thank me for my service when they are aware of it, especially in the South. I appreciate that. I’m in fact proud of what I have done in service to my country overseas. I’m not ashamed at all that I never exchanged fire with anyone, that I never had to shoot an enemy myself. I spent time in situations where I and others with me were at risk. Where I could have been called upon to use the weapons I carried—but, thank God, I never had to. (But if I had needed to, I would have used them.)

So I love the…what’s the right term? I love the respect for service. The camaraderie to a degree. I also make use of the understanding I have gained of war to answer military questions on Quora and elsewhere, and I like being afforded some respect for what I know. I also love some of the struggles of war as narrative, some of tragic realities war causes, with profound respect for the tough choices people have to face. Warfare can make very compelling stories. But I also hate those things—my own tough choices, for example, cost me the relationship I had with my family. An effect I continue to suffer, though things are better in a number of ways than they were. I believe, though I cannot be sure without having done it, that I much rather would have lost a leg than my family.

I see the firearms of war differently that I did in my teenage enthusiasm. I understand now, really understand, what they are for. But they still have a beauty of design and target shooting can be fun. I mostly see them as tools with a purpose—a sense that carries with it neither hatred nor love, but does contain a grim reality. And I still think fighter jets are cool, but I’m especially glad none in any real operation have been called upon to unload bombs on my head. (As was shown with dive bombers attacking men on the beach in the movie Dunkirk.)

By the way, I loved Dunkirk because the movie captured the sense that the historical event of the evacuation of Dunkirk was about survival, both of those who were only trying to survive, and of those who either threw away their own survival or put it at great risk for the benefit of others. I find these war stories more moving than I used to, because I feel I really know what it’s like to face war, to lose friends, to be a risk, to risk for others. These are great stories.

But I balk at tales that portray violence as too easy, as nothing but glory, as a walk in the park. It’s part of the reason why superhero movies usually but not always ring hollow with me. The typical superhero story fails in so many ways to show the world what it’s really like to face a situation so horrible that the only option you can bear is itself awful—and I would say that’s what it means to fight and kill to save others.

Though war stories are also horribly wrong at times. On occasion, too optimistic. Though often enough in recent years bloody without a real sense of tragedy, bloody as if war is actually normal somehow and we should not be horrified by its effects.

I find inside myself a burning desire to tell people what war is really like, to explain to those who don’t get it. I also want to celebrate in my own writing and the stories I publish the Captain Brasheers among us. Yet…I also hate war and want to celebrate other struggles, especially ones between good and evil within the human heart, struggles of an ultimate importance far beyond a body count. (And I love the science piece of science fiction and strange stories, wholly independent of anything relating to war.)

I personally am proud of my service but don’t wish to be defined by that alone. Have suffered, but don’t wish to be seen as a victim. Have served, but don’t deserve the presumption that I’m a hero.

In short, I both hate and love war. I’ve tasted its fundamental nature and know the human race would be better off if we put aside warfare forever. Yet…some of the greatest stories are war stories, tragic because of the meatgrinder human evil puts people through, yet shining with patches of genuine glory.


Saturday, August 12, 2017

Zombie-Powered Technology

 (The action figures of Michonne and her pack-bearing zombies--kinda strange if not disturbing these action figures really 

I will apologize up front to the readers who might find this topic gruesome. If you find descriptions of zombies inherently disturbing, please don't keep reading. But this post is just an exploration of story ideas, of the sort, "If this is true then that should also be true." I hope it inspires some original takes on what have become standard zombie tropes.

As per Michonne in The Walking Dead using zombies as pack-bearers, in a world with real walking dead, why wouldn't you use them to power all kinds of things? (Note that somebody else may have already thought of the ideas in this post, but if so, I haven't heard of it.)

Zombies with their teeth removed (or lower jaw, as Michonne did) and hands either removed or fingers shortened (cutting off their arms altogether seems rather excessive), would be generally unable to harm anyone. But since they move around without needing to eat and do so for an indefinitely long period of time, why not put that energy to good use?

A cart with zombies yoked to it could provide free, albeit slow, transportation--though it would be a good idea to put the walkers behind the cart or carriage, pushing poles they were chained to. So as they tried to get at you in the cart, they would move forward, pushing the cart down the road. (Which means you'd need a steering wheel for the cart, because you wouldn't be able to steer the zombies.)

Zombies at a water wheel with a similar setup would pump water as much as you need, literally moving as long as a human was placed in front of them to go after. A plow with as many zombies as you would need to move it could plow fields, following farmers as they walked out their rows of crops.

You could hook them to an generator to make electrical power. Or have them pull major road construction gear, if you used enough of them.

In fact, the uses are so plentiful, you'd think that all areas in which people managed to build protected enclaves would use zombie power for at least some things. 

This would create a strange world wouldn't it? Perhaps the zombie-fed industry would become so standard that it would be like Southern plantations were before the Civil War--a fixed piece of the economy. Perhaps people would even deliberately turn MORE ordinary people into zombies, to keep their machines running.

Or if a means were invented to cure "zombieism" (zombieitis?), perhaps the plantation owners would resist any cure that turns their labor pool back into free human beings, adding a sinister twist that would parallel actual slavery (though of course enslaved people were 100% human).

And if you imagined an alternate reality where a massive zombie outbreak as is so commonly portrayed in fiction happened earlier in history, then you could make the parallel even stronger. ACTUAL zombie plantations (though I don't know how you'd get a zombie to pick cotton).

Anyway, back to the original idea--if zombies were really around, instead of being a perennial threat, wouldn't people soon convert them into a pool of labor? Isn't it human nature (as demonstrated by history) to do that?


Sunday, June 4, 2017

Wonder Woman: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

(Gal Gadot in the latest incarnation of Wonder Woman)

DC's Suicide Squad led me to swear off superhero movies until I don't know when, ad indefinidum. Friends who recommended DC's Wonder Woman film (along with some free tickets), prodded me to give the latest film adaptation of comic book superhero a chance (though I did happen to see Logan in the meantime--but that's another story).

Does this latest film save DC's film franchise? Does it even provide an excellent story fans can rally behind?

(By the way, numerous spoilers about the movie are in this post, though down a bit.)

I don't actually care very much about my first question. Or I should say my feelings are quite mixed as to whether I actually want both Marvel and DC to be cranking out superhero movies in a vast array, each and every year. I actually hope they don't and superhero films become rare events. So I shouldn't even try to answer that.

As to my second question--"was this even an excellent story?"--it turns out I have mixed feelings about that, too.

This movie was pretty good for a superhero story--but superhero stories are mostly pretty bad in my honest opinion. I would say it's the growth of computer-created special effects, which can make what was only once possible in a pen-and-ink drawing come to life with real actors, which is the primary reason superhero movies are so popular today.

Part of any superhero story was always about spectacle. The superhero can do something no regular human can do. The audience gets a thrill imagining swinging through tall buildings like Spider-man or Batman, or straight out flying like Superman or Storm, or owning other amazing properties, like the ability to block bullets and outfight almost anyone on Planet Earth, like Wonder Woman.

We, the audience, watch with open mouths at the amazing stunts, often too overwhelmed by the spectacle to ask ourselves if the actions shown actually make sense in any kind of world, even the fantasy the superhero story presupposes. When we start asking questions, when we begin to think, most superhero tales melt like cotton candy in our mouths, leaving nothing more than a sugary aftertaste--in my honest opinion.

Actually, some superhero stories do considerably worse than leaving a sugary aftertaste--Suicide Squad certainly did worse. In contrast, I would say Wonder Woman did better than average.

Still, "better than average" is not necessarily great. I saw things that were good in the film, things bad, and things awkward or strange or goofy that I will lump together as "ugly."

1. Wonder Woman is shown to have pure motives. She really does want to rescue humanity. She is not obviously tormented, twisted, and half-evil herself.

2. She has a worthy goal. When Wonder Woman concludes that only Ares could set mankind to killing one another in WWI and rushes of to kill Ares in order to liberate mankind from war (although ironically a warrior woman herself), she assumes what all good-hearted warriors believe. That if I complete this mission, I will save lives, even if I must kill to do so. If killing Ares would be enough to end all war and return the human race to permanent peace, sparing all the innocents who are killed in war, it would certainly have been worth it.

3. In Wonder Woman's attitude towards Ares, the film draws a clear line between innocence and guilt. The innocent do not deserve to die, but the guilty DO deserve it.

4. The movie tells some important truths. Diana winds up discovering that the real causes of warfare lie in the human heart, not in Ares. VERY, VERY TRUE. She also is enraged at generals who callously send soldiers off to battle from places of safety behind the lines--I appreciated that attitude. There are some other points along these lines as well.

5. Diana (a.k.a. Wonder Woman), winds up in a climactic physical battle with the villain Ares (of course, that's what superhero movies DO) and defeats him. But along the way she spares the life of a German chemist building weapons of mass destruction for the Kaiser. In other words, she shows that mercy is a virtue and speaks of the value and importance of love.

1. The moral message about warfare is muddied to a degree by Diana remorselessly killing anonymous German troops on multiple occasions, as if Germany really IS more villainous than all the other warlike nations of Planet Earth and being German = guilt worthy of death. It's also muddied by the fact that even though Wonder Woman discovers the problem of warfare really lies in the human heart, she goes right along in having physical fights--as opposed to addressing what is really wrong with people, which cannot be done by slashing people down with a sword.

2. No God but a goddess: The film reveals Diana is in fact NOT actually an Amazon, but a deity herself. No, not just an Amazon named after Diana, but apparently THE Diana, since she is revealed to be a goddess. Some people may not care much about this, but since the God I believe in was not mentioned at all, while Greek gods and goddesses are mentioned, it's hard for me to imagine there is not some sort of substitution going on, even if unintentional.

Note that the God of the Bible/historical Christianity, who the vast majority of people in Europe believed in during WWI, would quite naturally be mentioned on at least two occasions, at least indirectly, but was not included at all (once was where Steve Trevor talks about marriage, which usually happened then in churches--but he only mentions a judge).

And yes, Diana now can match Marvel's Thor in being a deity, albeit a limited one in some ways. And just as Thor still has modern-day worshipers delighted to see him on the big screen (some people may doubt this, but it's quite true), so will the modern worshipers of Diana likel be pleased. Which is not something I personally consider a positive.

3. Ares, once revealed, proves to be anti-climactic. He makes it plain that he is not really the one pulling the strings--he's merely facilitating. Humans are pulling their own strings to do evil. While I love this twist in regard to the truth it tells, it makes the final battle between her and him rather hollow. Killing Ares accomplishes not quite nothing, but very little.

Note that acting and film production were generally good. So things I note here are exceptional to the overall quality of the film.

1. Silly armor: Granted there are goofier version of armor for women, but Wonder Woman has legs exposed, head uncovered except for her nifty headband, arms exposed except for her bracelets, and plenty of neck and upper chest exposed, leaving her carotids and jugulars and other key stuff not very protected. Impractical.

2. Long leggy Amazons: All the Amazons except one pretty much look alike, conforming to just one concept of feminine beauty and fitness. I happen to know for a fact some short women can be in excellent shape and be good fighters...but you wouldn't know that from seeing Wonder Woman.

3. Germans don't speak German: You know that thing some movies do where they introduce you to what is supposed to be a foreign language by having people speak in a foreign accent, which you are supposed to take for being a foreign language? Or where some films let you listen to foreign speakers speaking their language for real? The Wonder Woman film does the latter for all languages OTHER than German--so you hear short bits of Spanish, French, Chinese, Ancient Greek, and Walloon in the film. But the Germans just talk with a German accent. Awkward.

4. Wrong details about World War I: Various details of WWI are all messed up in the movie. The final months of the war had more movement of trenches and battle lines than most of the rest of the war--yet the film talks about a unit being frozen in place for seven months. Also the Kaiser would not have a gala anywhere near the front lines during the war (trust me on that). And Wonder Woman pretty much single-handedly winning a battle would have attracted a lot more attention than one sole photograph--there were actually reporters covering the war at the time, believe it or not! There was also a real General Lutendorff in command of some of the German forces in WWI--who was nothing like the movie version. Among other similar goofs.

5. German machine gunners can't shift targets: One particular military detail bothered me more than others...there is a scene we would have to call iconic where Wonder Woman charges into "no man's land" towards the German trenches. They eventually direct several machine guns at her, which she blocks with her shield, the force of which is strong enough to keep her from moving forward. Since she is drawing fire, the men with her advance and a battle is won.

Visually the scene is impressive but makes little actual sense, not even in the fantasy world of Wonder Woman. Why no German thought to shift fire downward at her legs I don't know (she was standing up, albeit leaning forward, so her unarmored legs would be a prime target--hey, that's what you do in war, do what it takes to kill the enemy, nice or not). But even more I can't imagine why they would not stop shooting at her when it clearly wasn't working and mow down the men advancing in her wake. Duh.

Dumb enemies make the plot move along faster, but as a device it doesn't qualify as good storytelling.

6. Steve Trevor lacking: Chris Pine as Steve Trevor I found a bit unconvincing. A bit too convenient. And when the film kills him off, it does so with no real love story between him and Diana ever taking place. I think the story would have been better with at bit more fire. Just sayin'.

7. Men not needed for pleasure: Speaking of no real romance between Diana and Steve Trevor, in a conversation between Diana and Steve Trevor about sex, Wonder Woman says men are needed for reproduction, but are not "needed for pleasure." If that sounds like DC is saying Wonder Woman is bisexual, they clarified the issue in a press release. Yeah, that is exactly what they meant to say--Wonder Woman is bi. Which is all very modern of them, but I think was unnecessary to the story and something that I would say definitely belongs in my "ugly" pile.

I could add more nits to the ugly pile--but what I said covers the things that bothered me the most.

So, "Was this even an excellent story?" No. "Excellent" is too strong a word. It was good. Only excellent when compared to superhero stories produced of late...but that isn't fair to all other genres of film. In general, superhero stories I would have to rate as worse than average except for their computer graphics and special effects. In the murky slush of underachieving superhero tales, the Wonder Woman film floats close to the top.

That doesn't make it great. It
wasn't great--it had real limitations and shortcomings. But this movie was at least worth seeing. In my honest opinion.

Disagree with me? Feel free to let me know what you think in the comments. :)


Wednesday, April 12, 2017

The Meaning of "Life"

Taking advantage of the fact that movie tickets in Mexico (where I currently live) are about a third the cost of those in the USA, last night I saw the science fiction-horror film, "Life."

Note the title of the movie in Spanish is actually "Intelligent Life" (Vida Intelegente), which is actually somewhat more appropriate.

I'm going to discuss some problems I saw with this film, leading up to a general criticism that applies to many recent movies. A few spoilers follow, though most of what I will mention you can deduce pretty easily from the movie trailer and the poster I shared. I will deliberately avoid telling exactly how the movie ends and will be rather general about the information I share.

Yes, as per the trailer, life is found in a sample of soil brought from Mars to the International Space Station (ISS). The scientists on board, a special crew largely dedicated to studying the Martian samples, nurture this life into a multi-cellular organism, which over a process of time turns out to be malevolent. And intelligent, as per the movie title in Spanish. Most of the crew is dead by the end of the film.

This is sort of what we expect from a thriller set in space, what is essentially the retelling of 1979's Alien film, except in near-Earth orbit. Except...Alien was both thought-provoking science fiction for those interested in that, with an internally-consistent world view, AND a really scary film. Whereas Life managed to be mostly not that scary with the exception of a few notable scenes while not being very thoughtful at all--plus the story world it builds off is a jumbled mess.

The scariest scene in the movie is mostly given away by the trailer. There is something quite terrifying about the idea of having your hands in those gloves in a biological sample container--and then the SAMPLE grabs you and won't let you go. Only one other scene I found as uncomfortable as that, but if you've seen Alien, the second scene, which featured the alien entering a human body, comes off as a gruesome echo of what was a much more surprising scene in the 1979 film.

One of the things I really liked about the movie Life is how convincing the visual scenery was. It looked like the setting really was on the ISS and at times the view was stunning.

However...that leads to the film's greatest downfall. When telling a story, even in science fiction, you create certain story rules that a good story sticks to throughout the tale. Given an interstellar freighter on a deep space mission backed by a greedy corporation who is willing to risk the lives of the crew to bring back a potentially profitable life form--and you have the story world for Alien. Life's story world setting is as part of most highly publicized mission on Planet Earth (intended to bring back life from Mars), with an internationally well-known crew, on a orbital platform with numerous safety back-ups of many types and which is in constant communication with Earth via various means.

In spite of what you'd expect from the setting, Mission Control is virtually non-existent in this movie. As you might expect (in imitation of Alien), the crew does get completely isolated from Earth...which I don't have a problem with as the direction the plot needs to go. But hey, this is the ISS. That isolation should not come so soon. There are multiple communications systems and they don't just switch off from a single quick cause. Why not have the alien take them out systematically? Nope, that's not what happens.

In general the movie makes the ISS take on a lot of features the International Space Station does not actually have, like single-person escape pods and quite a lot more. The plot at one point envisions pushing the ISS into deep space but you can't actually do that with any kind of normal system. The ISS is too big and too low in Earth orbit. There's more, quite a lot more technological problems, which made the stated setting into something that's really quite different from a real place that actually really IS orbiting Planet Earth. I don't want to give all of these errors away, but they are numerous.

I want to be clear that I don't have a problem with changing the features of a real place for a story. Let's say the Empire State Building in New York City has a secret floor for government experiments. OK, no problem. Or a secret elevator. OK, cool. But as my imaginary example goes on, let's say we find out halfway through a movie that the secret elevator actually goes to hell...what, that's weird...oh and also, the Empire State Building can fly. I'd think: Really unlikely, but maybe with giant jets or something--but no, it can fly because somebody fitted it with a balloon the size of a baseball filled with a really special lifting gas...eventually I  find myself saying, ER, NO, THIS IS DUMB.

A story world needs internal consistency. A story cannot just go on magically changing aspects of real things because it helps move the plot along. That's sloppy script writing.

So there's that, the false story world. There's also the fact that the life in "Life" is seriously overpowered. It is not shown to be able to do anything it wants, but it gets quite close to that. Ordinary things that kill all known life don't work on it. And unlike in Alien where the features of the monster are revealed step by horrifying step, the beast in this film goes from innocuous to murderous to practically invulnerable at a very steep curve.

There's also the crew. For highly trained astronauts and scientists, they seemed a bit dim. There were multiple times while watching this movie I thought to myself, "OK, that's not going to work. Don't do that." Or, "Hey, that's clearly not working, do something else." But they kept on pursuing their bad ideas until they imploded.

By contrast, I felt the crew in Alien did things that made sense for the characters--even if at times their planning wasn't the best, it had internal logic. They, after all, were a space freighter crew, professionals but ordinary people at the same time. The crew of Life are supposed to be the brightest and best Earth has to offer...but they seemed, most of them, a bit ordinary in terms of how quickly they figured things out.

But even though they were ordinary in brain power, they were not as sympathetic or interesting as the characters in Alien. They seemed a bit like cardboard cutouts instead of fully-developed characters (to me at least), with one surprising exception to that--the Japanese astronaut, who wasn't even one of the headline actors in the film.

So how did this film get made with so many story problems? What inspires a studio to create an inconsistent story world, shallow characters, an over-powered baddie, and an unconvincing plot?

I find myself answering this by going back to what the film did best--it's visual effects. The film sure looked good. The actors were attractive, too. It seems that no expense was spared to provide visual images. The looks of the "life"form itself, which was a product of CGI, could perhaps be criticized somewhat. But I would say if the alien failed to be fully convincing it was because of how it moved and how it acted, not because of what it looked like.

It seems that recently when studios think "science fiction" they spare no expense to pour money into visual effects. Stunning visuals are more and more common in movies. But at the same time, the stories as in plot, character, and consistent story setting seem to be getting put on the back burner.

So what is the meaning of "Life"? It means that movie studios think science fiction fans care most about special effects and that stories, especially those with internally consistent story worlds, don't matter much.

Are they right about that?

I surely hope not.


Thursday, January 26, 2017

Answering what it means to be a Christian author--the Mythic Orbits 2016 way.

(the chart above illustrates the updated view of this story classification system)

This blog post is inspired by a reviewer of Mythic Orbits 2016 who stated he felt the collection did not comment on what it means to be a Christian author. I disagree and will explain.

To set context, more than a decade ago I had a conversation with some writer friends in a critique group. What does it mean to be a "Christian" author of speculative fiction?

At one point in the conversation a friend said, "Does a Christian bricklayer lay Christian bricks?" (Johne Cook said that.) His point was that the work Christians do is just that, WORK, and it is not marked by everything we do being what anyone would call, "Christian." In fact, his point raised the question, "Is it even possible for work to be Christian?"

I objected, saying something like, "Yeah, but stories are built out of ideas, unlike bricks. It's possible for an idea to line up with Christian doctrine or not. Therefore it is possible to write a Christian story in speculative fiction. And that's what Christian authors ought to be doing."

This divide among my fellow Christian authors has never gone away. Some writers I know feel that the very attempt to write a Christian story is a wasted effort. Others feel that a Christian story is a real thing and furthermore, what any self-identifying "Christian" author ought to be creating.

And some Christian authors fall in-between those two poles, of course. Including me now.

I would now say that I believe God is involved in the act of inspiration for those who are committed to Him. By "committed to Him," I mean I think it's possible for a Christian to shut out God from his or her thoughts and write something that in fact contradicts what God would want a person to do. So a Christian author should be careful to maintain a close relationship with God and examine each work individually to see if it matches up.

But other than what I just said, I think following inspiration where God lets it lead is what we are supposed to do. I have come to believe that the God who put such a variety in nature will inspire us as Christian authors in myriad ways. Some of us will be overt and/or very evangelical. Some will be more subtle. There is room for both and all varieties in between. 

This current attitude of mine was why I sought out Christian authors for a collection of speculative fiction short stories in Mythic Orbits 2016, without requiring them to write to any specific theme or meet any doctrinal standard.

If you subject the stories I published to some analysis, you will find the authors resolved the issue of writing stories as Christians in a variety of ways. I'm going to break down the methods used and name them by type, from most to least overt.

TYPE ONE: These are OVERT in referencing something directly related to Christianity with that message CENTRAL to the story (even if an unconventional message). Direct references to Christian doctrines and beliefs come on a recurrent basis throughout the story or are the central point of the plot, without which the story would cease to exist. In Mythic Orbits 2016, those were:

1. Sherry Rossman's "The Water Man" has a direct reference to visible souls of dead people right from the beginning, portrays a character with faith and a sense of conscience, quotes a psalm (without saying it is a psalm), and refers to Jesus directly in the story. (But still involves murder, removing it from being a Sunday School story :) ) OVERT, CENTRAL.

2. Joshua M. Young's "Domo" features an android pondering the meaning of mortality and God and seeking answers from a priest. OVERT and CENTRAL.

TYPE TWO: Stories that are OVERT in Christian references but such references are NOT CENTRAL to the story. Clearly what is central to a story is a bit subjective, but I would say for these you could remove the Christian references and still have a story--but it would be a different story, of course.

1. "HMS Mangled Treasure" by L. Jagi Lamplighter Wright is the one tale I am not sure whether or not it would be better described as a Type 1 or Type 2, but have decided 2 is a better description. Jagi has the issue of souls come up with important story results, the central character is overtly Christian, but the essential plot of rescuing a doll from faries would be the same without Christian references, though the ending of the story would be very different. OVERT, but probably best described as NOT CENTRAL.

2. "The Disembodied Hand," by Jill Domschot features a secondary character who helps the protagonist, who makes an open reference to believing in God and who prays. This character could probably be altered to making no references to God and not praying, though this would change the impact of the story. Perhaps the Christian references are central to the story for the author, but I would say they are not. OVERT, NOT CENTRAL.

3. "Nether Ore," by Kirk Outerbridge features a freaky world of a future dystopia filled with viscous squid. The main character "overtly" dreams of a world where the Bible is read and his dreams wind up having an important connection to the end of the tale. Several other characters make overt statements about the Bible and it's clear the good guys believe. But erasing the Christian references would still leave a tale of dystopian, squid-infested waters. OVERT, NOT CENTRAL.

4. "Cameo" by Linda Burklin features a young woman as the main character who prays and several other references to prayers to God, which in cultural context of the story can safely be assumed to be Christian prayers. Still, the story would be essentially the same story if the references were removed. OVERT, NOT CENTRAL.

TYPE THREE: Stories which have INDIRECT (or covert even) Christian references, but such references are CENTRAL to the story. The Christian themes cannot be removed without gutting the story, but such themes are not openly stated.

--After the original posting I broke this down into a type THREE A and THREE B. The A's would have indirect but very clear references. The B's would have indirect but not as clear references to Christianity.
1. "The Bones Don't Lie," by Mark Venturini occurs in a parallel world, where God is referred to as the "Eternal Lord." It's quite clear what this reference means, but the priests in the story, their means of determining God's will (by casting bones), and even what they are looking for is quite distinct from any direct references to Christ or God or overt Christian messages. But the religious element that parallels Christianity is essential to the tale. INDIRECT but CLEAR, CENTRAL. (Type 3A)

2. "Graxin" by Kerry Nietz has a central theme of prizing a particular thing that Kerry told me relates to the "Pearl of Great Price" parable in the New Testament and which relates to the concept of love. While saying this relates to Christianity is a matter of interpretation, the author's stated intent counts and this theme IS essential to the story. INDIRECT but NOT CLEAR, CENTRAL. (Type 3B)

3. "Baby, don't cry," by RV Saunders has an indirect reference to the human sin nature in accordance with Christian ideas that is indirect to the degree that someone could debate whether it's Christian at all (though it is very clearly there). But I believe it does qualify as a reference to Christian thought and I think the story would cease to exist without the protagonist deliberately trying to hurt her friend.  INDIRECT but NOT CLEAR, CENTRAL. (Type 3B)

TYPE FOUR: The logical-analytical types reading this know what's coming next: INDIRECT, NOT CENTRAL. Several stories in this collection make Christian references that are indirect and not central to the story.

1. "Escapee," by Richard New features a protagonist who behaves monstrously. His victims in the tale are aliens, who have a chapel on their ship with the image of an alien suffering on a Y-shaped post. Clearly the good aliens have beliefs which parallel Christianity, providing an INDIRECT but CLEAR reference to the Christian faith. But the protagonist's story could exist without such a reference. NOT CENTRAL. (TYPE 4A.)

2. "Ghost Roommate," by Matthew Sketchley features a mostly-comic ghost which begins to take on a more sinister aspect as the tale moves along. One passage compares ghosts to demons, providing an extremely indirect Christian reference which could easily be removed from the tale. INDIRECT, DEBATABLE/NOT CLEAR, NOT CENTRAL. (TYPE 4B.)

TYPE FIVE: No clear Christian references at all, but a direct or indirect moral message that is harmonious with Christianity. 

1. "Dental Troll," by Lisa Godfrees shows a girly trying to avoid pain at all costs--and finding such an effort to be a mistake. MORAL, NOT CHRISTIAN

2. "A Model of Decorum," by Cindy Emmet Smith shows a protagonist who is exceptionally polite and well-behaved as a general rule (with an important exception), who experiences a reward for her good behavior. No clear Christian references at all. MORAL, NOT CHRISTIAN. 

TYPE SIX: Just a story, folks. No real moral is evident. Nor are there any Christian references, either direct or indirect.

Mythic Orbits 2016 has only one story in this category:

Kat Heckenbach's "Clay's Fire." We could argue the central character experiences empathy for both the storyteller and the protagonist in the story-within-a-story and feeling empathy relates to the Christian virtue of love. But the story in no way reinforces or rewards this empathy. It simply tells a story.

I suppose there could be other types of Christian stories I haven't seen in Mythic Orbits 2016. But I have a sense that the categories I discovered in the tales submitted to me would do a good job of covering most of the possible ways a story could be considered "Christian" in theme.

Do you agree or disagree with the categories I created? If you disagree, what other ways would you identify Christian stories?

And what types of stories do YOU write? Please feel free to mention your own style in the comments below this post. :)


Monday, December 19, 2016

A Modular Brain

This post originated in me wondering if humans like to kiss because the mouth is the part of the face, which perhaps is the part of the body most closely associated with our conscious self, the part of the mind where we mentally abide, our own internal living room  as it were (as if the face, including vision, were the primary window the conscious mind uses to connect to the world, whereas other means are more distant, like windows in a basement you can access but have to move your vantage point to do so). As opposed to your subconscious being more connected to other parts of your body, like your internal organs (things you can feel but normally are not aware of unless you are in pain, like your breathing or how your knee is operating, would occupy a boderline between the conscious and unconsious mind).

As I was thinking about this, an image of old Nintendo style game cartridges plugged into a human skull popped into my head, generating an idea that stemmed from that picture. What if it were possible to have a living human being with a modular brain, a plug & play system?

This is would be just one aspect of being a cyborg and is not really original to me. Perhaps possibly though it is original to think of writing a science ficiton story in which different parts of the brain could be mixed on a modular basis. So I could match the conscious mind of a human being with the limbs of an octopus. Or horse. Or an alien creature. Or a story could flip a subconscious so it operates machinery, while the conscious self perhaps believed it was still fully human. Or I could plug an alien conscious mind into human limbs, etc.

Or more narrowly, what if you could pick eagle eye input, bat sonar, and an elephant nose input to be fed into your brain? And the brain parts would be adapted in this form of plug & play to be able to process these unusual imputs and harmonize them into the whole system? Like a sort of mental USB that in these examples connected to exterior sensors?

What if wholly internal processes were subject to his same modularity? So you could adopt Vulcan logic as a plug-in and swap it out for a Klingon battle mindset when you needed it? (The possibilites would be endless.)

What if fine-tuning and customizing your own brain were a major industry of the future?

Whether this happened in some sort of cyberspace or in a futuristic cyborg reality would give nuances to what this story would actually be like. But I think writers usually think of our minds and or bodies becoming something else as a whole unit. Or more often, rather than trying to transform the way a human thinks in a story, they imagine what we would consider an ordinary human mind inside another kind of body--as if you could put your mind in a bear or a whale or something like that.

Imagine a story that did it differently. Where separate mental functions were plug & play and you swap them out as needed, as frequently as you wanted.  A modular brain.


Friday, December 2, 2016

The Quantum God: Every One of You Who is in HEAVEN and in HELL

So, as discussed in the last post in this blog, what if a specifically Christian story took the many Many Worlds Interpretation (MWI) of Quantum Mechanics seriously?

What if God allowed to happen each and every moral choice human beings could make? So each alternative decision played out in one alternate universe or other? (This would include multiple versions of the Bible existing in different universes, as I mentioned in my last post.)

And what if, as I also said in my last post, God created every universe at a common starting point, then deliberately brought them back to a common end?

If that were true, if there were only one common heaven where God brought everyone back into a shared eternity, that would have a particular unusual effect. It would perhaps mean that there would be multiple versions of each person who believed in that common shared heaven. The believing you who got married for the first time at 20 and the one who waited until 39. The one who joined the military and the one who became a Quaker. The one who died in a horrible accident at age 7 and the one who lived to 97.

That would be a little strange to say the least, right? Seeing yourself in hundreds of alternative forms, possibly thousands or more? Though note that this version of Many Worlds would only split along moral choices and not along every single possible thing that could happen as in the standard MWI. There would not be millions of you--I wouldn't imagine that anyone actually has made that many decisions that are specifically of a moral character. (If you made just over 27 of such decisions every single day from the time of your birth until your death at age 100, you would just barely hit 1 million. Methuselah could have a million copies...but I doubt it.)

Even among the small-town-quantity of duplicate selves, it stands to reason that all of you would get along, even if you took wildly divergent paths in life (this is heaven we're talking about, after all, the essential issues making people fight being ironed out). And it would be very interesting to find out how your life would have turned out differently if you had done X instead of Y. You could perhaps spend at least ten thousand years catching up with what happened to other versions of you. I believe that each path would serve to demonstrate that doing things God's way in each and every decision would have been best and wisest.

Perhaps though instead of having multiple versions of you, God would perform a miracle that combined all different versions of yourself into one being. Perhaps then you would have as your own memories all the different choices you made in every lifetime in all the divergent universes, even if such memories contradicted one another. We can imagine that the enhanced mind of a person in heaven would be able to seriously out-think the limited minds of our current world, so perhaps having your mind full of the memories of other versions of you would not be so difficult to deal with as it might sound. Perhaps it would also have the effect of making just being you much more interesting than it ever was before, composing one of a number of things that would make boredom an unknown condition in eternity.

As interesting as it might be to contemplate the collective you in heaven, it might be more interesting to ponder what would happen to those of you who did not become Christian believers. Those who according to standard Christian doctrine (which holds that disbelief--or in some doctrinal systems, extreme moral corruption--is damning) are doomed to an eternal hell.

Note though that there have been dissenters to the view I just called "standard." Some Christians have believed that all people will wind up in heaven and others have maintained hell is temporary. To which the standard position sharply answers, "Why would there be warnings about hell if no one goes there?" and "Why would hell be temporary when the descriptions given of it talk about it enduring without end?" To which the other side responds with verses about God loving everyone in the world and wanting everyone to be saved. To which the standard reply is that yes, God loves everyone, but He is not going to take away the ability to make moral choices. Including refusing to choose to follow Him and suffering the consequences of that refusal.

Note how this story idea takes the idea of choosing to believe or not and gives it a twist. What if, for the purposes of making an interesting story, we propose that both things are true? Everyone does go to heaven, but also only those who believe (and obey) God go there. Which harmonizes by imagining that every single person has at least one version of himself or herself who believes, so that every single person in all of human history has at least one form of himself or herself in heaven. EVERY single person would go to heaven, yes, WHILE simultaneously everyone there would enter because of their moral choice (even though not all versions of every single person would be there, naturally).

Note that with the exception of Christ, there would also be versions of all of the human race in hell. What if (again, this is a story idea and not a doctrinal proposition) unlike heaven in which all believing versions would be somehow united in one place, hell had multiple versions? Perhaps a separate, individual "outer darkness" for each individual who did not come to faith? Perhaps then hell would be permanent only for the very worst moral versions of people?

I have observed that people who don't like the idea of hell often change their position when talking about someone like Adolf Hitler--people can accept the idea that Hitler belongs in hell, but will at the same time refuse to believe that a great many humans have hatred in their hearts like Hitler and would have followed him if given the chance. So what if Hitler and all the Hitler-like versions of ourselves suffered eternally, but not every version of everyone not in heaven did so? What if these other versions who were not the worst of the worst were simply wiped out? Or given the chance to reform somehow?

When mentioning a status between full, eternal hell and heaven, I realize that may sound like I am proposing some form of Purgatory on the one hand or execution of the soul on the other. Note I'm a Protestant and don't see clear evidence of Purgatory in the Bible, nor of soul death. I don't believe in either thing. I'm not promoting what I believe to be true, but as a science fiction writer I'm proposing that there may be things about the workings of God which are unknown to us to the degree that when we enter eternity, we will find things aren't really quite what we thought they were--that the universe works differently than we believed it did. 

IF there are multiple versions of each and every one of us (that's a big IF, but let's run with it) then perhaps there are whole new ways of looking at our reality that match what is written in the Bible we have--and even allows for multiple true versions of that Bible, based on choices the human beings within it made.  But gives the Scriptures interpretations no human being, living or dead, has ever imagined before now. 

Science fiction takes what could be possibly true from at least from one perspective, even if unlikely, and imagines that it really were true. Doing that within the scope of what the Christian Bible teaches is only very rarely even being attempted. Non-believers are either not interested in Christian teachings or wish to show them to be wrong, while Christian believers tend to hold back on fully exploring their faith through the lens of fiction.

To my fellow Christian speculative fiction writers: Why not imagine multiple hells and a bizarre and unexpected union of myriads of universes of choice in a single heaven? Why not imagine meeting yourself in heaven again and again, while other versions of you hope to escape from hell? Why not write it?