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?


Tuesday, November 8, 2016

The Quantum Mechanics God of Alternate Reality Bibles

This post with an odd title will share a set of distinctly Christian story ideas loosely linked into the Many Worlds Interpretation (or MWI) of quantum mechanics.

So I feel compelled to explain what MWI actually is first. For readers who feel they understand MWI well, feel free to skip down 7 paragraphs, where I will begin talking again about what MWI means and how that relates to a story idea in bold print

In short, MWI sees that all possible alternate histories and futures are real. A way to tie that back into the specific language of physics would be to affirm that this interpretation "asserts the objective reality of the universal wavefunction and denies the actuality of the wavefunction collapse."

For those readers who many not understand the phrase I just used above (I pulled it off Wikipedia, BTW), I'm going to put into my own lay terms what I just quoted, using an electron as my example. According to quantum mechanics, the exact position and motion of an electron cannot be known. Not fully. To keep this as brief as possible, that means the position of an electron (and other quanta) can only be estimated based on probability. The electron can in fact be nearly anywhere, but the chances of it being on the other side of the universe when it just left an atom here on Earth is very close to zero. Note what I just said--the chances are "very close" to zero. But they are not zero. According to quantum mechanics there are very low probabilities (yes very, very low) that an electron that was on Earth just a nanosecond ago is now in the Andromeda galaxy somewhere. Yes, this definitely seems to contradict everything you have heard about the speed of light, that nothing can go faster than the speed of light in a vacuum, which would be about 300,000 kilometers per second. (In more than just this, the physics of quantum mechanics does not agree with the physics of relativity very well.) However, the chances are much greater that the electron is somewhere not far from its last position.

So the situation I just described, concerning the position of any quantum such as our electron being unknown, means in modern physics that the possible locations of the electron are calculated based on where it might be, producing something called a "wavefunction." (Wavefunctions can be combined to provide for all possible locations of an electron. All such possible combinations of wavefunctions is what the term "universal wavefunction" is driving at.)

For reasons I am not going to explain here that have to do with wave interference, it appears that our electron weirdly actually IS in a wide variety of places at the same time when it can be described as a wavefunction. So it isn't just that it is hard to find--it is acting as a different kind of thing, a wave. But when you measure where the individual electron happens to be at any given moment within the wavefunction, it "collapses," which means that instead of being in many places, the act of measuring the electron forces it to actually be in just one place at a time, so all the probable locations become one-and-only-one observed location. 
Note that isn't the same as not knowing where the electron is and finding it. The "finding it" in fact changes its nature and causes it to behave in a completely different way that it would if it were unmeasured (as a "wavefunction," an electron seems to act as a wave of different simultaneous locations, but once the function has "collapsed," it acts as a particle).

The Many Worlds Interpretation says my hypothetical electron seems to be in many places because there are a wide range of universes in which the electron actually is in each possible place it could be. And this variety of universes is seen in the wavefunction characteristics only giving probable simultaneous locations. When I make a measurement about the specific location of an electron, instead of the wavefunction collapsing so that all the possible locations boil down to really only one location, the MWI interpretation says that the electron continues to be in all the separate places it could be--there is no collapse. But we just happen to be living in only one of the possible outcomes for that electron. All the other possibilities continue to exist in other universes which are separated from us.

MWI sees the number of universes as not only for all practical purposes infinite, it sees that with each branching of quanta, with each wavefront collapse, with each decision if we want to think of it that way, the number of universes increases. And there would be a universe in which every possible decision that could be made at the tiniest scale (that's what the term "quanta" describes, the tiniest possible things), was in fact made.

So why did I bother to explain the meaning of the Many Worlds Interpretation? To make a few things clear about it. 1. It is just one way of interpreting physics. It is in no way actually known to be true--there are other possible interpretations. 2. It's a view of the universe based on science. So some very smart people buy into MWI wholeheartedly and think this is how the universe really works (I don't agree with them, but that doesn't matter here). 3. It undergirds the alternate reality sort of story which is very popular in science fiction. 4. I would like to use it as a launching point for a new kind of science fiction story, one that presumes God is real and the Bible is His message.

So, what if the MWI interpretation of quantum mechanics were actually true? How would that relate to the God of the Bible?

Let's suppose, just for the purposes of floating a story idea that at least some readers might take seriously, that quantum universe variations don't apply to God and the original creation, but they DO apply to the universe once God created it. So there would be an alternate universe where Adam and Eve never sinned and the human race lives in a global Eden on Planet Earth. There would be a Moses who did not strike the rock when God told him to speak to it, who would enter the Promised Land instead of dying outside it. There would be an ancient Israel where the kings never strayed from righteousness, which was never conquered by the Babylonians. And another Israel in which the Jewish leaders under Roman domination would have wholeheartedly embraced Jesus. Etc.

Note that God would not be inconsistent in this imaginary story conception. Human beings would have freedom to act and God would simply react to them as they responded to the choices He gave them.

Note also that this is a non-deterministic look at God. God can't have predetermined every single thing for this to work as a story. 
Or at least, if He did predetermine everything, He would need to have done so many separate times, Him allowing (well, actually, sovereignly ordaining) each choice a person could make to be performed throughout the universes. So there would be a plethora, but not an infinite number, of universes all wrapped around individual human moral decisions. Human moral choice would be the source of the division of universes and not the rattling of tiny quanta--which would be one of the key differences between this sort of story and the typical science fiction alternate reality tale.

Since God's character would remain the same in this Christian version of MWI, there would still be a sacrifice for sin, if sin in fact were to be introduced into the given world (it would seem sin would be a part of all possible worlds except only for one, the one in which Adam and Eve obeyed perfectly). But Christ would have to die in separate circumstances for each reality, each separate universe having its own version of the Savior for the universe at that point. Christ dying once for sins, as the New Testament says He did, would only apply to once for any given universe.

So, what if for each possible choice presented to human beings by God in Biblical times, a version of the Bible existed which covered the choices made? Where every alternate action would have actually HAPPENED in an another universe?

So there would be a plethora of possible Bibles. Not an infinite number, because the moral choices God mandated human beings make in Scripture are not infinite in number. Say there were 10,000 different Bibles across the universes. Or 7,000--that's more of a Biblical figure. :) (though if we were to count small changes, 7 million might be more like it)

Why shouldn't a Christian author of science fiction feature a story where God is consistent but the people who responded to God did radically different things? So as people somehow cross into an alternate reality, as so often happens in stories like this, they would find ALL possible realities contain a Bible and Christianity (or something essentially like it), but the Bibles were not in fact the same in each alternate world? And the very worlds people lived in were different as well, based on differing Biblical influences?

I see no problem extending this moral decision-making past Biblical times. So there might be 7,000 versions of the Bible, but each individual Bible would have separate alternate universes branching off from it, separate universes in which that particular original text was used. 

So the universe that produced our Bible, as we have it, would have separated further after Scripture was written. So it would represent perhaps tens of millions of alternate realities, each reality based on moral choices made in relation to God post the writing of the Bible. 

Likewise there would be tens of millions of alternate realities linked to other Bible versions. Variations in Scripture and translations could become the most important means of figuring out which universe you were in--or at least in which SET of universes you had entered.

Wouldn't it be interesting if also all versions of the Bible, no matter what they are, ALL had essentially the same first and last chapters, even if everything else in them changed? That God would bring all the different quantum universes to the same eternal state, just as all of them came from the same initial creation.

I have more thoughts to share on this story idea, but I believe what I can say next will stand alone well as its own blog post. And that perhaps I have written enough on this idea for now, anyway. :)


Wednesday, November 2, 2016

The Walking Dead--Maybe it's Time For me to Stop Watching

This blog post commits no real spoilers concerning The Walking Dead season 7 opener. I'll say it's brutal but not necessarily highly realistic, without divulging anything more specific than some general comments on story events which are widely-known and some other comments about head injuries. And I mention that the featured bad guy is surprisingly charismatic and charming. I won't even bother to say his name.

That this bad guy kills should be known by everyone even vaguely familiar with the show and all its advertised hype. That he does so with a special baseball bat wrapped in barbed wire should also be known. Also that the killing is brutal should be known, perhaps the most violent actions shown on "regular" television in the USA--all that has been the talk of the Internet of late.

I suppose realism would be the justification for showing as much gore as the episode does. However, what was shown actually wasn't highly realistic. It could be argued that reality is significantly worse and there's a point to that. For example, the scalp is notorious for bleeding heavily. On one particular occasion, hitting my head on the ground hard on my 3rd jump at US Army airborne school, with a helmet not quite fitting right, the jerking helmet net gave me cut on the top of my scalp not one inch long. And that little cut bled quite a bit, so much so that another soldier said I looked like an extra from Braveheart, my face wholly covered in red--and I barely felt any pain. Of course not all scalp cuts are equally that bloody. But what happened to me wasn't highly unusual. Scalp injuries, in general, bleed. A lot.

So strict realism would require a lot more blood at first than what was actually shown. Really it would. And then a bit later, a lot more white and gray matter (I'll abstain from more details on that topic at the moment).

"So what?" Somebody might reply. "Are you complaining it wasn't brutal ENOUGH?" No. That wasn't my intent at all. But at least in my mind, strict medical realism would have provided some kind of cover, some kind of excuse to get so messy.

What is the point in showing gore and blood which isn't actually real? To just be disgusting? Just to horrify the audience or provoke an emotional reaction from them? I mean, isn't that what slasher horror films are famous for, whether they are realistic or not?

Or perhaps the show's producers would have gone further into realism but censors would not let them...I don't know about that.

I do know I was a fan of this show since season 1. At times things about it concerned me...such as the fact that the most morally upright characters were killed off, on multiple occasions--with surprising regularity, actually. But I did not let myself be too bothered by that particular detail.

The show had the virtue, in my view, of showing that evil really IS evil. It did not pretend that people are basically good, though killing off good characters may imply that evil behavior is a functional necessity in hard times--which is not something I would agree with. And at times the show has gotten close to saying people are essentially good, (only forced to be bad by circumstances), with at least one character (Carol) losing the ability to kill for no particular reason. Yes, I find it more compelling to show that a human who walks the path of extreme brutality will never really be the same again. And that any repentance a person who has crossed that line may experience is an unusual event, not what humans normally do in the worst of circumstances. In fact, changing one's ways away from evil, a.k.a. repentance, is usually an experience linked to deep religious conviction in the real world. The character Carol does not show any profound convictions about the value of life that I observed in the story, religious or otherwise. She simply suddenly found it hard to continue killing. As if her innate human goodness suddenly came surging forward after a long time of doing wrong. Which is not something I find true to what human nature actually is.

Carol's change of character and a few other events lead me to a more honest evaluation of how TWD represents morality. Which would be to say the show has muddied the waters between good and evil at least a bit. Termnians were evil but something had to happen to make them that way, something awful, something beyond the need to survive and a world in which rules of good behavior are no longer enforced (which are more than enough for the worst of human nature to surge forward in my view). Gay characters have been shown exclusively in a positive light, as if being gay is a guarantee of innate inner goodness and invulnerability to temptations to do evil, which it isn't. While religion (of any kind) has only informed the lives of far fewer characters than you'd expect in the setting, the US South, i.e. THE BIBLE BELT. And not in all cases when it has been portrayed has it been shown to be good--which isn't unrealistic, but in fact gay people are portrayed better on the show than religious people. And last I checked we are all human and capable of abandoning the behavior civilization works hard to put into each one of us.

By the way, wouldn't a realistic portrayal of a zombie apocalypse in Georgia show a lot of people suddenly developing a deep interest in their Christian roots? A lot of people praying? Which would have nothing to do with promoting faith in any way, it would simply be realistic for the area. Right? But that's not what TWD has done.

So I am afraid I need to abandon what I used to claim. That the show is realistically showing people as they actually act under very bad circumstances (note, I never claimed the zombies themselves were realistic).

No, it isn't doing that. The show is treating us to a carefully scripted view of what is right and wrong, one I don't think is actually correct. And there is more that's false in the story than its moral issues--to give just one example, have you ever noticed how the grunge of the zombie apocalypse manages to keep everyone's hair still looking good? I can't recall a single case of messed up "hat hair" in the show...not among the main characters anyway...even though they at times wear hats. Not that hair is vitally important--but it is just another way that TWD fails any careful test for realism.

What The Walking Dead has produced is in fact the equivalent of the 10 dollar Rolex for sale on a street somewhere. At first glance it looks good--in fact, looking good it what it delivers more than anything else. But its inner workings are defective. It isn't real. It's a fake, albeit one that acts as if it's something more than an imitation.

"OK, this show is a fantasy," someone will say. "We all knew this or should have. What's the big deal?"

To perhaps push my previous analogy a bit far, that to me is like saying, "Hey, if you see a Rolex for sale for 10 bucks, you should have known it was fake the whole time. Buy one if you like or not, but you have no right to complain about it."

Yeah. Sort of. Yes, I should have known better. But no, I don't have to continue to like a show I thought of as realistic in some aspects, but which has wandered away from the realism which mattered to me. I do have some grounds to complain.

And there's the issue with the series 7 opener that showed the designated bad guy as charming and charismatic. Sure, it is actually realistic to show a charismatic villain, because there have been plenty of those in world history. Perhaps I should be applauding the realism. But what I fear is true instead ("fear" is the right word instead of "believe" or "think," because I'm not 100% sure), is that this change is in no way driven by a sense of what is real. Instead, it came from the writers of the show hoping the charismatic leader would rivet viewers to the screen. As would the guessing over the brutal actions that leader would take prior to them happening and the flood of raw emotion for most viewers as the episode's on-screen splatter took place.

In other words, it isn't realism driving this new villain but a desire to bring in a larger audience. "Well, duh," will say the you-should-have-known-better people. True, it isn't shocking or shouldn't be that a show will do anything to bring in more viewers. It isn't surprising that previous gruesomeness in the show has not proven to be enough, that like spectators of gladiatorial matches in ancient Rome, the fans of TWD expect things to get worse, not on a continual basis mind you, but in fits and starts.

So that leaves me with a tough personal question--do I really want to consider myself a fan of that? Of a show that has only gotten more brutal over time and which shows no signs of stopping? 

I used to say that the increased brutality was for realism's sake--and that particular perceived realism was the main thing I LIKED about the show, actually. But it ISN'T for realism. It's for ratings...and it seems to be having the effect of rewarding the desire in people to see more and more violence. To seek out the novelty of something that is worse than the last time, creating a cycle of the series continually growing worse. Even though the show's portrayal of violence isn't altogether real, the way it is going I fear will wind up desensitizing its viewers to the genuine article, to real violence.

You know, I very much believe in freedom of individual choice in most matters. I also believe that moral choices matter--and the things we watch help shape who we really are deep inside. That as individuals, people ought to be vigilant about what they do and do not chose to watch. And I also believe that maybe I have had enough of The Walking Dead's escalating cycle of violence.

A reader of this post may not concur with anything I said in the paragraph above or with not enough to be in fundamental agreement with me. Fine. I don't dispute your right to an opinion of your own. By all means, make the right moral choice for yourself.

But as far as my choice goes, I believe it's time for me to stop watching The Walking Dead.