Monday, July 11, 2016

Non-lethal Weapons of the Science Fiction Future

Inspired by a Facebook comment by Jessi Roberts (thanks Jessi!), I've decided to comment on non-lethal weapons. The most famous of which would be the Star Trek phaser, set on stun:

The general problem is that it is harder to disable someone than to kill them. Recall the case of the terrorist attack in Moscow in 2002, when terrorists from Chechnya took over a theater. In the end, the Russians pumped an anesthesia gas into the place, which killed about 130 innocent people, but allowed all 40 terrorists to be killed and allowed some 700 other people to be rescued. The problem with gas is an overdose is very easy. And people who fall asleep may involuntarily vomit and choke to death on their own emesis. So you could say the Russian solution worked--unless you were one of the 130 killed on accident. Or related to them.

Other disabling systems have the same problem. Too little of whatever you want to use and the person you intended to stun is still on his feet, ready to hurt you. Too much and you might permanently injure or kill the person you mean to stun. Ultrasonic waves or infrared heat that can disable an opponent at a certain range of energy are ineffective or overkill at others. And the systems required to set up such "stun" settings are not presently something you can just hold in your hand. And the chances are you won't be able to hold anything like that in your hand any time soon. The Star Trek "stun" setting is simply fiction. Knocking people out without killing them is a lot harder than that.

Star Wars used carbon freezing to in effect "stun" Han Solo (though Star Wars also shows a stun beam at least once), though of course if you freeze a person, the real problem comes with thawing him out. Frozen cells rupture, so a thawed person in reality is as good as dead. Star Wars offered no real solution to this problem, only hinting at the difficulty by making Han Solo temporarily blind on his release from his imprisonment. But even if you mastered the technology of freezing and rethawing, actual freezing would surely work a lot better in a controlled environment, just like anesthesia works a lot better on a surgical table than in a Moscow theater.

A pretty effective modern system revolves around pepper spray, which is usually good at causing pain and making people drop to the ground, disabled but not killed. This isn't very practical for military use, since its range is so short and it can be cancelled out by chemical protective gear (and a tiny percentage of people can ignore pepper spray anyway). 

And in a science fiction context, I think you'd have no assurance that the pepper spray we use would work at all on an alien species--they might simply get angry. Or HUNGRY for that matter. :)
The modern taser gives a better example of how an effective stun system might work. The taser uses electrical pulses to in essence override the nervous system of the person its used on. This still isn't practical as a military weapon, because its range is too short. But imagine you could fire a taser rocket that would fly over to an enemy, guiding itself, then delivering the taser charge and keep it going until its owner came to turn it off. THAT might be very effective. And its stunning effect could be tailored to match the species it attacks. (Or we could imagine a self-piloting flying syringe delivering designer anesthetic.)

In fact, contemplating a future with robotic weapons incorporating computer systems that would have the ability to individually calculate dosages of anesthesia or amounts of shocking energy and monitor the person who falls afterwards, non-lethal systems suddenly become much more probable. There seems little doubt that individually fired flying projectiles, ones that could guide themselves to their target, and that could deliver a precise dose of whatever it took to knock out an opponent, such technology would seem to be an inevitable part of the future of weapons. 

Note that other futuristic computerized systems are possible, not just the self-guiding projectile kind. You could have a door that automatically stuns people who attempt to break in. Or bomblets which drop from the sky, opening up into little flying or even crawling robots, seeking out people to stun. Or a nanite cloud, which in science fiction are usually portrayed as eating people alive, instead, delivering them just the right amount of anesthesia to put them to sleep.

Taking prisoners could become the standard practice in future wars, actually killing people on purpose considered barbaric and unneeded. Or at least certain science fiction races would see it that way. (Others, presumably, would not.)

So, dear friends, as you write combat scenarios in a science fiction context, don't forget the non-lethal weapons. They are certain to be the wave of the future for real military operations.


Saturday, July 2, 2016

An Open Letter to the Alien Invaders of Earth (Independence Day Resurgence)

(Without discussing the entire story, this post commits numerous movie SPOILERS for "Independence Day Resurgence")
                     (The alien queen, in action, mentioned below: Independence Day Resurgence)

Dear Alien Invaders of Earth,

I offer my most sincere condolences on your total failure to once again defeat what must surely be one of the weakest space powers in your known universe, what you must think of as the obscure and little-known Planet Earth. I would like to kindly offer you a small bit of tactical advice for your next attack, since you clearly need it.

I'm saying this as a resident of Earth myself, even though my planet occupies an alternate timeline from the one in the film I recently watched, since we have never been literally invaded before and united as a planet to build a space defense force after the fact. Please note that the documentary film of the climatic events which occurred in your alternate universe has been released in many Earth languages on my world. The one I saw was in Spanish, so perhaps there are a few details concerning your invasion plan which were lost in translation for me.

Though I must say, I felt your invasion plan was going very well at first. You targeted the lunar-based space defense force with ruthless efficiency and followed up with an immediate and decisive strike against all space defense forces orbiting Earth. At this point in the documentary, I had high hopes for the success of your plan, because on close approach to Earth, destroying all the best defenses is exactly what sound military tactics called for.

Though if I may add this: if you simply fired a very powerful single space weapon, of the kind that would really require a lot less energy than maneuvering your massive "mother ship" through the gravitational field of Earth, from far away from Planet Earth itself (say from the orbit of our neighboring planets Mars and Venus) I do not think very many (if any) Earth weapons would be able to respond from so far away. Just a thought.

Though perhaps you wished to savor your revenge up close. Very well--who am I to judge the requirements of alien revenge?

However, after destroying the space-based defenses systematically and rapidly, I am puzzled as to why you did not follow up with a systematic attack on the Earth ground-based defenses. I mean, it was a primitive weapons platform designed to fly in the oxygen atmosphere of Earth that took you out before. So I would think you would have targeted them this time, making sure there were none of them left.

And I must also admit to being puzzled at your plan to destroy Earth itself. Yes, you benefited from the incredible luck that your chief alien enemy showed up right above the main lunar space cannon, looking hostile, without broadcasting any messages of peace and friendship which any reasonable opponent of your space empire would do (I mean, no wonder you defeated them, they're dumb), but you should have considered at least some possibility that the Earth would have benefited from alien tech helping us. So actually landing on our planet seemed to me to be an extraordinarily bad idea.

Your mother ship was something like 5,000 miles wide (or was that 5,000 kilometers?) big enough to produce a significant amount of its own gravity, which you must know, since you keep your own ship from collapsing in on itself from its own gravity somehow. Why not simply orbit Earth at a high rate of speed? The tidal forces from your ship's gravity would tear the crust apart, creating numerous earthquakes at an unbelievably massive scale and giving the globe a very satisfying end that none of our ground'based weapons would be able to do anything about. OR, alternatively, if you have mastered artificial gravity (as it seems you must have), simply pull Earth out of its orbit, sending it spiraling into the sun. Much simpler than what you actually did, while simultaneously still very dramatic.

Speaking of simple, why not just shower asteroid-sized space rocks on Earth at high velocities, thousands of them. The Earth is sitting at the bottom of a gravity well and from space you are like attackers who have taken the high ground. Drop some rocks on the people below--it works very very well, since you have the forces of nature on your side.

But in fact, it would seem you protected the Earth from the gravity of your own ship, because you did not shatter the crust of the planet when you landed on it. Sure, you killed a lot of people who happened to be under the equivalent of your landing struts, but you actually should have killed a lot more, as large as your ship was.

I suppose that must have to do with the requirements of alien revenge again. OK. You want us to die nice and slow, got it.

OK, if so, why not consider a biological agent to do that? You use bio-engineered suits to protect your bodies, so I assume your biological science are well-developed. Make a super bug, especially one that would turn humans into zombies. Watch the fun from space as we literally eat one another alive.

Or again, more simply, why not just drop a lot of poison on the planet? Powdered plutonium would do very well--or nerve agent. Or chlorine gas in massive amounts (we invented that as a weapon more than 100 of our Earth years ago, so I assume you guys must know what chlorine is, right?).

Your actual plan, of drilling a two kilometer wide hole all the way down to the planetary core, um, did not make much sense to me. How exactly was that going to destroy the planet? Earth is not a balloon filled with pressurized air. Gravity, that stuff we were talking about just a bit ago, gravity keeps the core material inside the core. Digging a hole might cause a lot of earthquakes, but not near as many as simply landing on the planet itself with whatever you used to dampen the effects of your ship gravity turned off.

Maybe I was missing something due to watching in Spanish...were you going to use artificial gravity to pull the core contents out, once you reached the core? That would take a long time through a hole only 2 kilometers wide. Well, it would destroy the planet, but lots of other things would do it even better--like dropping some neutronium or a small black hole into the center of the Earth. You would not even have to dig a tunnel--gravity would make it find its own way. And gravity would compress the planet, eating it from the inside out, killing everyone. Faster and more straightforward than the "drilling down to the core" thing.

Okay, okay, your plan was obscure, strange, unlikely, but once a plan is in motion you are committed. I get it. It's a military culture thing.

But if I may humbly suggest, why is it that if your technology was linked to a single queen and would cease functioning without her, why would you attack with a ship that has a queen on board? 

Or if you are going to use the queen, why would you only bring just one? Sure, she was several hundred feet tall, but still, with a 5,000 mile (or kilometer) diameter ship, you have room for more than one of them. You have room for thousands, if not millions, in actual fact. 

Well, no need to get excessive. You could easily have taken hundreds, but how about just a dozen? Or maybe even just one other? Just one. One spare. Is that too much to ask for you to plan in advance?

Or maybe you could invest in some automation, something that would keep the ships running when the queen is gone?

True, the humans were painfully stupid enough to send a live human to attack your ship from the inside, a job that essentially called for him to flip a switch. Couldn't they find a robot to do that? Hasn't anyone on Earth heard of automatic pilot? Sheesh!

But look, just because the humans were dumb doesn't you had to be. So you had just the one queen. There you were, fighting with the forces you actually had rather than the ones you could have wished you had.

So under the circumstances, having the one queen, the one linchpin to your entire system, having her lead the attack probably was not a great idea. And once having led the attack, she totally lost focus on what she was supposed to be doing. Chasing a school bus? Why? Going after random pilots who happened to bail out, why? Wasn't there a specific military objective she was supposed to achieve, instead of chasing any moving object in her field of view? (Don't you guys have any tranquilizers on your planet? She could have used one.)

Anyway, my condolences again on your horrific defeat. But if I may humbly submit this to an obviously powerful and technologically advanced species: sorry, but your plans suck. 

I mean, other than the first step of destroying the space-based weapons. Other than that, everything else you did was painfully stupid. No wonder you guys keep losing...

A non-fan


Wednesday, May 18, 2016

The Post-Apocalyptic Chemist: Fuels. "Fertilizers." and "Fire"

You've seen Rick and the group from The Walking Dead find a new car, start it up, and drive away. It happens in other post-apocalyptic stories, too. Cars driven away after a long time of sitting still somewhere.

The Mad Max dystopia deals with this issue by putting refineries in its story world, but other post-apocalyptic story universes don't do that to my knowledge. Guess what? Fuels within a vehicle go bad due to their volatile nature in usually 3 to 6 months. Sometimes they make it all the way to a year, but not more than that (according to what I've read).

The Walking Dead Wiki states 547 days have passed in the story timeline from the beginning of Season 1 to the end of Season 6. Which means, none of the cars should be running anymore. Even the fuel in fuel trucks should have gone bad.

(Photo: Fuel truck from Mad Max Fury Road)

What this means for story realism is there are a number of things about fuels you should considered (but perhaps haven't):

1. Fuel additives that boost octane and stabilize fuels would be premium items to recover on supply runs after several months into the apocalypse. Adding pure distilled alcohol would help some, too. For a while--until not even they could help cars designed to run gasoline, after the gasoline goes totally bad.

2. Diesel cars would go through a definite phase of popularity. That's because diesel fuel can last longer than gasoline. Most regular cars would not run after 6 months to a year. The diesels might keep working an extra six months or so.

3. "Flex fuel" cars would be the only vehicles that would last long-term. Why? Because they can run on ethanol without suffering damage, though even they use some gasoline in their ethanol mix. (Note that ethanol works less effectively as a fuel in cold weather than warm weather due to it not burning as quickly as gasoline/petrol. I guess that means no winter driving in some places.)

4. Homemade fuel would become very important. Those who knew how to distill alcohol to make fuel would be engaging in a vital skill needed to maintain transportation and defense. Biodiesel would be important, too, though I imagine more people know how to make moonshine than diesel. (And besides, people would want to drink the booze.)

All the above situations would mean that a team of survivors in a post-apocalyptic world would need a POST-APOCALYPTIC CHEMIST on the team quite badly, even if an amateur one, to mix and make fuels.

And IF we are going to have a chemist of some kind as part of all the best teams in the zombie (and other flavor) apocalypses, that means there should be some other things the team chemists should care about, substances they would know about that relate to solutions to many potential problems, especially Fertilizers. Why? (Not so much for growing crops:)

A. Ammonium nitrate, which is a very common type of manufactured fertilizer, makes an excellent explosive. Just add a bit of fuel oil such as diesel and add a blasting cap or other starting device and BOOM. Therefore:

B. Building bombs would be a very common type of post-apocalyptic activity. The materials for making them are everywhere and they can do a lot of damage (the Taliban in Afghanistan sure managed to make a lot of them from basic materials). Why enter at a possibly-trapped enemy door when you can blow a hole in the wall? Why risk a tank or other heavy vehicle from "the governor" running up on you when you can lay wired-up pipe bombs underground, defending your perimeter? The zombie apocalypse team that could master bomb making (which really isn't that hard and which DOES relate to making fuel) would dominate groups who didn't have explosives.

C. Fertilizer plants that make ammonium nitrate would be key targets of supply runs. Smart team chemists would key into that. Owning and possessing supplies of fertilizer would be a important, perhaps life-or-death resource. Note that urea is also used to make fertilizer--and when treated with nitric acid, makes explosives as well as does ammonium nitrate. So urea fertilizer plants would matter, too.

D. Urine can be evaporated down to make urea, a building block of urea nitrate, another fine explosive component. For strict, albeit stinky realism, pools of drying urine should be seen at least sometimes in post-apocalyptic worlds. That is, if there's a team chemist and if there are no fertilizer plants nearby.  (Yes, it really is possible to make your pee into a explosive device!)

Note when more bullets are fired, leaving guns useless, the more important it will be to find something else to give an edge against others who might have guns. Without at least basic chemistry, any post-apocalyptic world winds up relying on hand-held weapons, clubs, hammers, spears, and a sword if you're lucky. With the help of a chemist, bombs can become a reality to help even the odds.

But people will also seek a replacement for the types of portable weapons that can kill at a distance, i.e. guns. Therefore it will also be important for the team chemist to work to develop new ways to Fire at an enemy.

I. Gunpowder would become the Holy Grail for the post-apocalyptic chemist. Note that quite a few Americans make their own bullets and use commercial gunpowder to do so. But eventually all that is going to run out. Until it does, it will be important, but once it's gone, chemists are going to try to replace that commercial gunpowder if they possibly can. However, I think modern smokeless gunpowder would be difficult for a lot of chemists operating without a plant to make. (In fact it's a lot easier to make explosives than the gunpowder used in modern bullets.) But please note that black powder is significantly easier to make than modern gunpowder. Therefore:

II. Black powder rifles would enjoy a resurgence of sorts. Sure, they aren't as fast as even a bolt-action rifle, let alone an assault weapon.  But they make an intimidatingly huge amount of noise when you might need some intimidation. When you master them, they can deliver a killing shot at a significant distance. And if you could make gunpowder and simple round bullets on your own, you could fire them without limit. Perhaps that would bring back shooters firing in ranks at an enemy, especially when protecting fortified walls...

III. Rockets of various kinds can be made with black powder as a propellant and other simple propellants. With bullets running low, a homemade rocket could be a way to replace the distance attack capacity of a gun, especially if it carried a warhead with explosives. The big problem--accuracy. Handmade rockets are not very accurate. But if you have enough of them, accuracy doesn't matter as much.

IV. Cannons and simple artillery should make a comeback too. The modern world has no shortage of high-quality metal pipes to make into cannons both large and small. Historically, even rocks can be shot from a black-powder cannon (and there certainly would be no shortage of rocks in a post-apocalyptic world :).

So you know the Walking Dead community, the Hilltop, the guys that were growing their own food and using spears for weapons? They seriously 
also should have been making bombs and rockets, and fuel, too. Really!

Chemists doing so in a post-apocalyptic world would be very realistic. :)


Friday, April 29, 2016

Still a Deep Space Niner

It surprises many people to hear there were actually five Star Trek series. Not to mention numerous movies. And of those series, perhaps the one most likely to be forgotten is my favorite, Star Trek Deep Space Nine (most likely forgotten because of it's real differences from all the other Star Treks):

Why it's the greatest I can explain. But it's worth noting that I watched Deep Space Nine on television as the episodes were released in the 90s. I waited with eager anticipation between season finales and the startup of each new season. While I watched most other science fiction stories without having to wait. That certainly explains some of my past enthusiasm for the show.

Now I see the series differently, with more cynicism. Deep Space Nine had some serious problems. For one, it started slow--many people stopped watching it in the first year, which had the worst plots of the entire series. It also made a number of story-telling missteps. As episodes explored various wars and dangers, the Ferengi characters (aliens with big ears) became increasingly used as comic-relief, so more and more episodes became "all-Ferengi all the time." And with a few fabulous exceptions such as "Little Green Men" and "The Magnificent Ferengi," most of those episodes were dreadful. And it bears noting that some of the episodes, especially the Ferengi-focused ones, were a bit sleazy, with scantily-clad women parading around.

Also among its faults was that the end of the series introduced a station counselor, Ezri Dax, who was mostly annoying, although she had a few good moments. And again, towards the end of the series a holosuite program recreated Las Vegas in the 1960s in a series of episodes that were mostly not all that interesting for a science fiction fan like me focused on the future.

Another potential criticism of DS9 was that its characters were melodramatic. I think that's a bit unfair, because the story deliberately selected people facing the types of circumstances that bring out powerful emotional reactions. It's more correct to say DS9 was operatic in scope, really more than any other science fiction series I've ever watched. Yes, I do think sometimes the show when too far with melodramatic aspects--I think specifically the character of Gul Dukat got bent into some highly improbable emotional conditions, probably too much. Even though Gul Dukat remains a favorite character of mine.

In fact, Dukat points to one aspect of greatness of the show, the Cardassians as an alien race and their relationship to the Bajorans. The series explored the meaning of racism in a way other series haven't done, over a long period of time. (Dukat was at his creepy best when his racism justified working male Bajorans to death, while he simultaneously tried to seduce Bajorian women.)

The series also wrote episodes with long-term connections to one another, events that built up over a time, instead of being mostly independent episodes disconnected from one another, as most of Star Trek (and science fiction in general) happens to have. As such it took a deep look at the nature of warfare, including its negative effects, along with genocide, corruption, the drive for power, the sense of identity in a group and much more. It contained powerful love stories and powerful hatreds. It had amazingly interesting characters. It also featured some stand-alone episodes that were brilliant, including the unique "Trials and Tribble-ations," which meshed with an episode of Star Trek's original series.

DS9 also looked at the nature of religion and for the most part showed how religion can be an influence for good in a person's life, something no other Star Trek series has done to that degree. Though it also showed how the power of religion can be used to deceive and abuse vulnerable people.

The greatest thing about Deep Space Nine is that even though it's fiction, it told a number of truths. I did not deny that evil exists in the universe. It showed flawed and conflicted people trying to do the right thing under trying circumstances, sometimes wandering into moral ambiguity. It did not wallow in the silly idea that Gene Roddenberry loved that human goodness will ultimately prevail and we will no longer suffer from greed, or suffering, or corruption. Though of course DS9 didn't show what ultimately needs be done to cure corruption and evil--it did not unambiguously point a finger to God or Christ. But I am at least glad it showed some of the truth about how bad evil can be, while at the same time regarding it as EVIL ("some" because not even DS9 showed the full depth of wickedness).

It's been almost forgotten now (or so it seems to me), passed by via a reborn Star Trek franchise that has an altered timeline which probably will never include a Deep Space Nine in it at all. The new Star Trek films are action-packed and fun. But not deep.

So that's why in spite of all valid criticisms that can be leveled against it, in spite of its relative obscurity, I remain a big fan of Star Trek DS9. I'm still a Deep Space Niner.


Friday, April 22, 2016

Peter Jackson's Ring of Power

As Gandalf famously stated in the Fellowship of the Ring, the Ring of Power appealed to the good-hearted and heroic wizard, giving him a desire to use it for good. But in fact, as every LOTR fan knows, it cannot be done. The Ring of Power will eventually corrupt every person who attempts to use it into an evil being.

Watching the Fellowship of the Ring movie last night reminded me of this principle. The fact that evil cannot be used for good is one of the things I love most about The Lord of the Rings. It’s a powerful statement about the attempt human beings make over and over again to gain power supposedly for good—which simply cannot be done by evil means. Not without becoming evil.

By the way, back when it was first released, I strenuously objected to the plot changes Peter Jackson put into the Fellowship of the Ring. No, for me, the original story was quite good enough and didn’t need to be streamlined or “Hollywoodized” or anything of the sort. When Frodo sneaked away without telling anyone in the book, that’s exactly how the movie should have been as far as I was concerned. When Aragorn was described by Frodo as someone who would, “Look fairer and seem fouler” if he’d been evil—indicating the character was not particularly good-looking—I thought it was a mistake to cast the ever-so handsome Viggo Mortensen in that role.

While I still may mourn the lost message from Tolkien about the value of inner character over looks in Aragorn’s face, I actually now see the rationale behind putting Mortensen in the part. As a scruffy-dressed guy who happens to be very good-looking, he looks like he was always intended to be king, though his stubble argues he doesn’t have the refinement a king should have. The movie makes him an evident “diamond in the rough” and perhaps the visual nature of movies makes that a good thing. Perhaps the audience needs to SEE in his face that Aragorn is good.

And as for Frodo sneaking away, his goodbye speech to Aragon is a great moment of the film, as are Merry and Pippin voluntarily becoming decoys for him, which was in fact totally missing from the book. In fact, Samwise observing him leave and joining him as he crossed the river (as opposed to simply crossing the river later because a boat was on the other side and finding Frodo after a while) made for a powerful movie moment which clearly improved on the story as originally written.

But here’s what I’m suggesting here, my point of writing this post. Plot changes became like the Ring of Power for Peter Jackson. Oh, it’s evident he intended them to be for good--but in the end, his power as a director to make arbitrary changes in an original and beautiful story led him down a path of metaphorical darkness.

Post-LOTR, the Hobbit movies have entertainment value, sure, but they are a travesty of the original. There are certain things Tolkien believed in, such as battlefield heroism having real value. Of a real world existence of such a thing as “noble blood,” that is, people who are good and decent beyond the norm because of their ancestry—that such a nobility can be passed down in family lines (even though he never rejected the idea that individuals are individuals).

In the last of the Hobbit movies, The Battle of the Five Armies, not only is the audience pushed through amusement-park-ride-like action scenes that are silly and unrealistic, completely lacking the sense of terror and heroism that mark war as both tragic and paradoxically beautiful, we are made to suffer the loss of the original story in other ways as well. Not only did Jackson foist upon us a CGI-fest that will seem even more vulgar once the novelty of such technology wears off, we were “treated” to the personage of Stephen Fry, cast in role designed to pontificate about the corrupt nature of kings in a way Tolkien wouldn’t have agreed with. Not only did the battle itself lack almost all the pathos and fear and courage in face of death that mark a real war, the movie wandered off in other directions with other purposes, and became wholly unlike the charmingly original, almost fairy-tale-like substance of the book as Tolkien wrote it, with a shocking brace of realism at the end. No, the movie has plenty of grit, losing much of the charm of a fairy tale—but also is wildly unrealistic in its portrayal of battle, an error Tolkien himself never committed.

And the movie version changed the original characters in many ways, too. To give only a few examples, Beorn, a secondary but important person in the original tale, virtually disappears from the movies. Tauriel appears out of nowhere, as does her love interest in Kili, though she and he were far from the worst of Jackson’s missteps. The king of Laketown, barely mentioned in the book, swells to bloated importance in Stephen Fry’s portrayal. Eww.

A director cannot fairly make his money of the writings of a man long dead while simultaneously warping the substance of that work into something the dead man would never have agreed to. That directly parallels the attempt to make an evil ring do good work. It is a fundamental contradiction—it cannot be done. Not justly.

Which is why the power to make plot changes in Tolkien’s works proved to be Peter Jackson’s Ring of Power. Why it lead him down a path of film-making “darkness.”


Saturday, April 9, 2016

The Interrupted Fall into Evil: Carol and Morgan in The Walking Dead

The Walking Dead's zombie apocalypse has inspired me to comment on the topic of the monster on more than one occasion--how could zombies really exist? But the story fascinates me much more because of what it does to the human characters involved.

I'm especially intrigued by the way human evil is portrayed in the show--when survival is on the line, the veneer of civilization comes off most people and they begin doing things, evil things, that their normal selves would barely have recognized. Some characters resist this general fall, but they do so from the beginning of their story arc. However, the characters Carol and Morgan have recently run counter to that general tendency of change always being for the worse. Why?

For the uninitiated, Morgan was a character in the story who the leader of the survivor group, Rick, ran into early in the plot. At first, he was just a decent person trying to survive. Later, he appeared again, unhinged, essentially insane. Dangerous--a killer.

Later still, Morgan appears again in the story and has become a permanent character, one now learned in martial arts, proficient in the staff, and utterly convinced that "all life is precious." The story dedicates an episode to how he came to have that change--a kind-hearted man with humanist principles (a former professional therapist) essentially kidnapped Morgan and educated him in the perspective that life matters even in the zombie apocalypse, a perspective he came to accept. (He also taught him how to use the staff.)

It's no secret to those who have read this blog before that I see the world from a Christian perspective. What Morgan went though fits within that paradigm readily enough. It could be tagged with a term the Bible calls "repentance." Repentance translates the Greek word
 metanoia / metanoia which refers to a transformation of the mind or the understanding. Usually, of course, the Bible refers to repentance being about feeling convicted for sin and turning to God because of it--the transformation of the mind comes into the process because a person does not see himself or herself the same way anymore. Clearly Morgan went through an experience that caused him to see himself differently--i.e. he repented.

Some Christian friends might object that repentance without accepting Christ doesn't really have the power to change a person. A person needs divine help in the form of the Holy Spirit to truly change, such a friend might say. I don't completely agree--whereas I do believe there is something special about the repentance that comes with conversion (it uniquely brings eternal salvation, for example), people undergo transformations of their thinking in a way that changes their behavior all the time. Like a man who kills a family while driving drunk finally understanding he really needs to quit--and never touches another drop of alcohol again, which of course can and does happen without accepting Christ.

Repentance has power outside of its Christian context, it really does. Morgan exemplifies that--through a form of repentance, he returned from being a viscous killer, transformed into someone who cherishes life.

The case for Carol is quite different. Starting the show as a housewife intimidated by an abusive husband, the death of that man coupled with the continual need to kill zombies to survive strengthened Carol to the point where she not only found it easy to kill undead monsters, the character is shown killing human beings who threaten her group without hesitation. Coolly and calculatingly. 

Some readers might object to the title of this post at this point. Am I saying Carol became evil in her easy acceptance of killing others? After all, some might say, Carol always killed in self-defense and for the benefit of the group. That's not evil, is it?

Debating the nature of evil isn't my point for this post. I think we can agree at least that the world around Carol became more evil and her easy adaptation to it points to a type of fall into wickedness. Even if her actions themselves weren't strictly evil, Carol did change over time, not in a sudden transformation of understanding, but in a gradual acceptance of more and more brutal behavior in herself--yes, in response to an increasingly brutal world around her. But still.

What's interesting about the character of Carol is the current script now shows her struggling with killing, not certain if she can continue. It's as if the accumulated weight of all the killing she did in the past has finally affected her and she's finding it hard to go on.

Now is that a realistic portrayal of human behavior? Do humans who become accustomed to killing, spontaneously start having a hard time with it?

Well, soldiers acting under orders to kill have been known to do something like that. Sometimes. after an initial revulsion to the death of others they come to accept it. Sometimes, often enough in fact, they go through traumatic stress reactions that effectively shut down their effectiveness in combat and make it impossible for them to continue killing.

The character of Carol is acting rather like that--but here's the thing, nobody ordered her to make the cool and effective decisions to kill that the character was demonstrated to make. She came up with that on her own.

So does it happen that someone who has dropped the trappings of civilized behavior in the midst of a brutal environment, without being ordered or pressured to so, someone who did it herself--has someone like that ever suddenly reverted to more gentle behavior? I actually can't think of a single historical example of such a thing. Oh yes, quite a number of vicious Nazis, after the war was over, found niches in ordinary civilized life after the fact. But I can't think of one of them that quit right in the middle of brutality, saying, "I just can't do this anymore."

Maybe there are historical cases of what I'm talking about and I just don't know about them. If so, please mention them in the comments to this post. But I read a lot of history, much of it touching on the topic of humans plunged into the worst of possible scenarios. The fact I've never seen such a thing certainly suggests it isn't very common. No, humans who find themselves able to engage in brutal acts on their own generally (if not always) can keep doing so without end. And in truth, when things are terrible, while some people will refuse to be brutal, many, many people will actually engage in the worst behavior possible rather quickly. And they will stay there.

In fact, that's part of why I find The Walking Dead so compelling. While zombies as a monster don't really make sense (I've tried to make sense of them in the past, but it doesn't quite work), the human monsters in the story are all too real.

Perhaps the writers of the story world behind The Walking Dead simply could not go on that way. Perhaps they really believe, as many modern people do, that human beings are essentially good after all. So they wrote into the script a character's innate "goodness" swelling up and interfering with an already-demonstrated capacity to kill in a cold and calculating manner.

I'm not saying the character of Carol isn't well-written--they've shown foreshadowing of her behavior to establish it wasn't instantaneous. But I think her recent change is based on false premises. While there are cases of good people of all kinds steadfastly resisting evil in the real world, while there are cases of repentance of both religious and non-religious types causing people to change how they act, people don't just spontaneously on their own start acting good when reacting to an evil environment.  They don't. Though sometimes people do plunge all the way down to the most evil actions imaginable, very rapidly.

That's a truth that the writers of The Walking Dead seemed to ready to embrace once. But now are walking away from. Or so it seems to me.

Do you disagree? If so, please let me know in the comments. Thanks :)


Wednesday, April 6, 2016

The Big Idea--a blog relaunch

I created the "Travis's Big Idea" blog back when I was barely READING blogs, especially not author blogs. A lot of the ones I did know about I found boring to be honest--seriously, writing about the process of writing is super DULL for me.

But I did know I liked story ideas--so I decided to blog about some of mine. Doing that was fun for a while, but I got bored with that, too. I'd like to talk about other people's ideas more often, not just my own. That's part of why it's been a long time since I've posted anything.

So I've given this blog a tiny bit of a makeover and a title change on the main page. It's THE BIG IDEA instead of Travis's Big Idea. I want to talk about much more than the strange ideas that run through my own head. I want to talk about your strange ideas (and other people's, too).

Anyway, I've got things to say. But that can wait a bit. First--I'M BACK WORLD. :)