Evil is not Stupid

SXSW has been in the news for its decisions regarding an anti-harassment panel; specifically permitting a totally not Gamergate panel as a supposed counterweight to the harassment panel and then cancelling them both for poorly defined reasons. You can read Arthur Chu’s account here and Leigh Alexander’s take here if you’re unfamiliar with what’s happened so far. (Events are still unfolding) While this is important, I’ll leave discussion of it to other people who are better suited to do so. Instead, there was something else about this whole thing that I wanted to talk about: Chris Kluwe’s denunciation of the original decision, which you can read here.

Overall, it’s a strong piece, but when reading it one can’t help but notice the following paragraph:

I read this, slammed my head against the wall for an hour, snorted half a bottle of bleach, force-fed myself eighteen pounds of lead-based paints, and still couldn’t approach the depths of sheer bloody-minded imbecility it must have taken to put those words together in that particular order.

It stands out because it’s disconnected from the themes of the piece. It stands out because of how It stands out because of how ableist it is.

The notion that the organizers of SXSW are developmentally disabled, or the equivalent thereof, as the source of their cowardice is patently absurd. They knew what they were doing, and if there was any disconnect between intention and actions, it’s not because they’re stupid, it’s because they’re ignorant. If you are less forgiving of the organizers then they’re not ignorant; they know exactly what they’re doing and don’t care. Regardless, the end result is cowardice and evil.

Evil isn’t stupid. Evil can function with ignorance, but that isn’t a requirement. Evil can function with apathy, but that isn’t required either. Evil requires active, malicious action. It solidifies itself through systems of oppression and marginalization that benefit those who do harm. These systems then use ignorance and apathy to prop itself up as people who have vested interests, or are led to believe that they have vested interests, prop it up. Action, which manifests as violence, is knowingly taken to defend these systems.

Attributing cowardice and malice to a lack of an intelligence is offensive. It infantilizes the opposition and makes it quite clear what you think of the disabled. If we want to make the internet a safe space then ableism is one of the things we must work to end.

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Review: The Last Colony

John Scalzi’s The Last Colony is many things. It’s what one has come to expect from the OMW series and all that entails*. It is also two stories crammed together, one of them is about establishing a human colony on a new planet and the other is following up on the geopolitics set up in the previous book. While these stories fall under the greater narrative of the book and involve the same characters, the two stories are left truncated. This leaves the weight of the story to fall upon the characters, which are able to do so with mixed results. Let’s not waste any time and jump in.

The viewpoint character for this book is the same as Old Man’s War, John Perry. This is a double-edged sword. While Perry is likeable enough and reads well enough, he’s also boring and largely ignorant of the greater situation. This problem is highlighted by the fact that he is surrounded by characters that are much more interesting. It could have been Jane, as someone who is trying to understand what it means to be human and knows something about the Conclave, or Zoe, the teenager with Obin bodyguards and is considered a living god. While the story is structured in such a way to make Perry important, it doesn’t change the fact that he’s dull.

Speaking of the story, I mentioned how it’s really two stories smashed together. The first one, is about establishing the colony of Roanoke and the politics surrounding the mission. This plot is essentially ended halfway through, after a dramatic climax with fallout never resolved in the story. The story than shifts to one of galactic politics where the Colonial Union is reaffirmed as a terrible government and Scalzi takes practically every measure to make it unambiguous. This isn’t terribly interesting as it makes the characters less relatable. While there is established motivation, it just feels distant. All of this is further compounded by Saviriti repeatedly calling out the CU, albeit with vague language. Not only that, but it leaves the characters feeling disempowered, they’re closer to disaster movie protagonists trying to survive instead of action heroes trying to win.

Both of these problems culminate in the book’s actual finale. Perry is able to emerge victorious through the off-screen help of his daughter in a matter that smacks of deus ex machine in a fight that has a token causality, who was an asshole anyway**. The book then ends on a happy ending as galaxy altering actions have happened with no pay off. It’s a rather dichotomous approach. On one hand, the characters are too engaged with the politics for them to be a backdrop for their own personal struggle. On the other hand, they don’t have the agency to actually do much about it. I would have vastly preferred it if was harder in one direction.

The book is fine and fun like its predecessors, but there are bigger problems than is predecessors on technical, structural level. Next week I”ll be reviewing Ernest Clines’ Ready Player One. Till next time.

 

*Although a minor character is a lesbian, so at least it’s not as heteronormative.

**One of the things I liked about Old Man’s War and The Ghost Brigades is how death was a fairy common occurrence for the protagonists. I agree with David Weber who has said, “War which is always heroic, in which only bad guys (who obviously had it coming, anyway) get killed, in which people hit by high-powered weapons either die instantly and painlessly or receive “only a flesh wound,” in which there are no mental or moral or spiritual casualties, is splatter porn. It trivializes and all too often it desensitizes, allows us to walk away from the hard questions and the moral wrestling with conscience, threats, and costs which should always be part of our understanding of what war really is.”

Review: Pokemon X & Y

Pokemon X and Y (Gen 6) aren’t good games. I don’t mean they’re bad games in the way that all Pokemon games.* I mean they’re bad games in ways that aren’t specific to the franchise as the game relies upon the 3DS’s features to push it over the top. Those feature being the graphics, which are admittedly gorgeous and the online functionality. Games are more than their mechanics though, they’re about creating experiences. This is what these games excel at; it’s what they’ve always excelled at. Let’s not waste any more time and jump into it.

Gen 6 isn’t hard, it’s mind numbingly easy. While the games have never been hard, there are certain things in this game that exacerbate the problem. First, there’s the issue of the game just throws powerful stuff at you. While your starter has traditionally been very good, you also get a Kanto (Gen 1) starter, a Lapras, a Lucario that can mega-evovle, and that’s just off the top of my head. Sure you could not use them, but in the case of the starters that’s boring. It’s a problem accentuated by the ease of which you find powerful mons in the wild. This in and of itself isn’t a problem, being given powerful options is fun. This does lead into the second problem.

The opposition is playing at a serious handicap. Their pokemon aren’t of the same caliber in the abstract. It’s not until the Elite Four that the designers even deign to give the opposition a full roster. Compounding this, the AI seems to have regressed** to the point of selecting moves at random. The least egregious part of this is that the levels of opposing trainers are off. While the change to the XP share in which it gives all of your pokemon xp instead of just one, requires less grinding to keep your party on even levels. It shouldn’t, least on an instinctual level, result in your team being on average five levels higher, but that’s what happens. I played the game with little foreknowledge (the most I knew was that one of the Gym Leaders was Fairy) and was never seriously challenged until I did the super rounds at the Battle Maison, but that’s post game.

While the game is easy, it’s also incredibly small. Kalos as a region has you going from point A to point B in a straight line with little deviation. There’s little exploration, the HMs are used almost exclusively to get items laying around in the field. And since the game is so easy, a feeling that bothering to collect these is a waste of time. The dungeons and Gyms are equally straight lines without the barest pretense of puzzles; getting some of the better TMs is the most interesting thing you’ll do.

This sense of being in a small world doesn’t just stop at the limited exploration, there’s just not a lot to do. There are a few to interact with, most of them being in the obnoxious to navigate Lumiose City, but that’s not much. The Friend Safari, this version’s equivalent of the Safari Zone, isn’t unlocked till post game. If there are Contests, I missed them completely. The Battle Chateau is a neat concept, but in practice it’s a money piñata.

All that being said, it’s still Pokemon and the basic formula still works. The fact that the game isn’t challenging means it’s relaxing to play. I like the group dynamic in this generation with multiple rivals and acknowledging that people would be interested in different things. I like Team Flare in concept; they’re James Bond villains with Malthusian motives. I wasn’t keen on how shallow the Gym Leaders and Champion were; but I’m comparing that the torrent of material from Gen 1 that makes me feel this way.

The game really relies upon its online features though, to make it an experience. Wonder Trading is fun, and a good way to stack the lottery in your favor. The GTS is super useful. O Powers make you want to play with your friends. If you can do that, then the game is a memorable experience. If you can’t do that for whatever reason, then the game is just ok. The result is that the game is only two years old and it hasn’t aged well and by the time Gen VII comes out its main value will be in grinding legendaries or some such if you can’t get a group together.

Pokemon X & Y show that a game is more than a mechanics. It’s how it uses those mechanics to create an experience for the player. It creates memories for its players but means that the game has a short shelf life. Next time, I’ll be reviewing John Scalzi’s The Last Colony. Till next time.

 

*In short a series of design decisions such as having ‘all pokemon being good in game’ the way the type chart works and other factors means that by and the large the games have never been the most challenging or well balanced.

**I skipped Gen V but Gen IV had the AI actually be a challenge in terms of move selection

Review: the Ghost Brigades

John Scalzi’s The Ghost Brigades, the sequel to Old Man’s War, is a fine book. Scalzi is easy to read and technically proficient in the craft. The book is fun, military scifi in the vein of Henlien’s Starship Troopers. But it’s hard to say that this is a good book.

Part of the problem is in expectations. While it is set in the Old Man’s War universe and has some of the same characters, the book is ultimately telling a rather different story than its predecessor. Some of this is a matter of different themes. OMW was focused on world-building, technology and presenting an unambiguous picture from people in the trenches. TGB on the other hand, uses the set up of the previous book to question ‘what is a human?” as well expand the scope out of the trenches. It does the former a lot better than the latter.

The attempt at widening the scale of perspective doesn’t go over as well. It uses new information that is revealed awkwardly and ends up deflating the characters’ actions. It also creates a feeling of ‘middle installment do nothing’ where there’s all set up and no pay off. Given that this is a sequel and many of the fundamentals such as Scalzi’s writing style and the setting, are unchanged; this isn’t the worst. Finally, the new perspective changes the entire reading of the setting, which may or may not be to your liking, but given the aforementioned problem of all set up, is hard to judge this book on by itself.

Trigger warnings: Sex, Violence, Death

 

That’s my nonspoiler review of the book. But having reading the book, I have spoiler filled thoughts and commentary. So let’s not waste any time and jump into it.

Beware of Spoilers ye who enter

 

One of the things that made Old Man’s War easily readable was how relatable its initial set up. Earth, and the people on it, hadn’t radically changed in between now and the future of the book. In actuality this means that the book is positively relatable by a certain subsection; many of society’s evils are still present. While misogyny seems to be a thing of the past, structural inequality is still present, ableism is erased and heteronormativity is alive and well. Now you could argue that these problems started in OMW, but I read that years ago while watching a game of Diplomacy in college and didn’t have the same priorities as I do now. Also I’m talking about TGB, in which some of these problems are looked at a bit more.

The structural inequality is explained by the Colonial Union keeping Earth in stasis in order to farm it for a constant stream of soldiers and colonists. Soldiers come from developed countries and colonists from everywhere else. Perry’s first person, newcomer perspective coupled with the possibility of Scalzi fleshing out the world means that this didn’t come up in OMW. This demarcation plays out further as the more developed colonies were settled by Western countries along with the CDF being run by Westerners who are fine with this arrangement. A pointed emphasized by Boutin mocking the naming conventions of Special Forces. This is a terrifying, yet plausible future, in which current structures of inequality are perpetuated into space.

I’m of two minds with this revelation. On one hand, it makes enough sense, both in and out of universe, that’s certainly buyable. On the other hand, having these problems and then just chalking them up to a government conspiracy feels cheap. Any problem can just be explained away by society being locked in a state of arrested development. It does show a level of self awareness that the current state of affairs is bad but is still a relatable framework. Also it stretches my suspension of disbelief given the timescale.

Now an interstellar government engaging in a shadowy conspiracy in order to essentially grow people so they can engage in a go wide strategy in a game of Galactic Civilization is one thing. Said interstellar government being set on stopping another Civ from getting a diplomatic victory and being a pariah state is another. This is essentially the extent of any reasoning that we receive. All of this information is revealed in the book’s climax by an unreliable source, and then confirmed in the resolution; which doesn’t really make for a good twist.

This isn’t a problem for our protagonists though. As the text points out, they’re brainwashed child slave soldiers. They find out about this and reject the information out of hand as they continue on their mission. Jared as a blank slate to contrast Special Forces with regular CDF is fine; Jared as a somewhat more confrontational blank slate is less fine. The plot contrives to make their rejection to Charles automatic.

Of course, Boutin has a point, but his plan would involve killing millions of people. This is a trope that I’m so tired of, and I’m aware that this book came out before other examples that I can think of, where the villain has a point about the systemic injustice that our heroes represent and defend, but the villain is gonna kill lots of people so the injust system stays as is. At this point I’m left wondering why should I care? The setting worked as a Hobbesian nightmare of everyone against everyone else and you can write off the evil stuff that the CU does as realpolitik, it’s a lot less interesting when the nuance makes one side a lot worse.

I mentioned ableism above not because of anything specific, but because the CU has such a strange fixation on baseline humans, except when it comes to the CDF and the long term plan of turning everyone into a Gameran. There are so many questions about the technology that go beyond consciousness transfer that don’t belong in this book; it’s not the story that Scalzi wants to tell. But they are questions that indicate disabled erasure.

Heteronormativity on the other hand, is in full prominent force. All we see are hetero relationships; all we see is hetero sex. Special Forces apparently celebrate missions by having an orgy, which is totally voluntary but the only Jane skips out on. Not because she’s asexual, but because of some sort of relationship with Perry or Captain Not Appearing in this Book. There isn’t anything else to say, it’s just patently absurd nonsense that throttles the diversity of actual human experience. Or it’s a case of the CU altering the genome of Special Forces to wire them all this way; which isn’t substantiated anywhere in the text but headcanons exist by and large to subvert.

     TGB is a fine book, it has problems but they’re universally insurmountable to make the book unreadable. Next week I’ll be reviewing Pokemon X &Y. Till then.

Live Historic on the Fury Road: Mad Max and Disability

I was one of the few people who did not see Mad Max: Fury Road in theatres earlier this year. I knew next to nothing about the franchise and heard of how excellent it was secondhand. So I was intrigued when Tauriq Moosa was posting on Twitter about Max being disabled and his opinion piece about it, which you can find here. This intrigued me; it was a part of Max’s character that I didn’t know about at all. So when I finally got around to watching the film, I was specifically looking at the film through a disability lens. So let’s jump in.

The most striking thing about Fury Road is so many characters are disabled in some way. Max has his leg brace, Furiosa is missing an arm, Nux has some sort of chronic illness, Immortan Joe needs a respirator to stay alive. This is a powerful message in and of itself, while representation is just representation; nonharmful representation is more than just representation. While the morality of these characters covers a spectrum to say the least, they’re all competent. It’s also, with the exception of Nux needing a ‘blood bag’, is never commented on. This in and of itself is a positive step forward, but there is so much context to this film that make it greater.

First, there’s a matter of genre. Fury Road is set in a post apocalyptic wasteland where any sort of greenery is rare and trees aren’t commonly known. It’s the kind of world where many people assume that the disabled wouldn’t be able to survive in. While Max’s struggle with civilization is closer to survival than most, that’s because of his character as a whole. It’s the same thing, these are fully formed characters with greater aspirations than living to see the next meal. In a world that is physically hostile and bleak as the wasteland, this is a powerful message.

The other interesting thing about Fury Road is the ways in which the film can be read. There’s the literal reading, the events we see are what happen. Then there are more mythical readings, this is a new Deamtime. My own interpretation lies closer to the mythical. The film makes the most sense to me as an in-universe folk tale a la Robin Hood or King Arthur. In broad strokes, the film’s events as presented happened; the details aren’t strictly true. Immortan Joe, Furiosa, the Wives and the War Boys, they all existed. Max on the other hand, is an iconic character who doesn’t slot in neatly. Max is a heroic figure who may not even necessarily been alive when this happened, but this story has become a part of Max’s canon.

This view is mainly supported by the film’s style, which creates a sort of timeless, otherworldly feel. The passage of time in the film feels off and pushes my suspension of disbelief in a way that little else does. Characters’ presentation is a triumph of minimalist storytelling; we know so little about them but it’s clear that they exist in a greater world. This is information that a viewer or listener presumably wouldn’t need in a folk tale. Also considering that George Miller has stated that he can’t figure out the chronology of the original trilogy, extrapolating that something is off isn’t that much a stretch. Finally, it’s an interpretation that appeals to me as it’s more grounded in history and how we tell stories.

On one hand, this view means the aforementioned disabilities are prominent in the narrative means that the future isn’t engaging in disability erasure. These are who these people were. The lack of focus on the fact that these people are disabled means that it’s not something worth commenting on in the future. Taking that detail in conjunction with Furiosa and the Wives returning triumphantly to the Citadel is an incredibly optimistic ending. On the other hand, the film is very much Furiosa’s story, and the idea of it being grafted onto Max’s canon stinks. However, the events of the film show that Max plays a supporting role, he’s a wandering swordsman who helps those in need and moves on. The story may have been grafted onto Max’s canon, but it’s the same thing as say Galahad and the Green Knight, it’s connected to the King Arthur canon, but it’s not about King Arthur.

Fury Road succeeds because its disabled characters are more than their disabilities. They do more than survive; they live and strive as people. This is a seemingly simple task that only requires one to unlearn centuries of institutional ableism. Fury Road should be praised for what it did, but looking forward it is also important to consider what other things can do as well in showcasing different types of disability in a similar manner. Next week I’ll be reviewing John Scalzi’s The Ghost Brigades. Till next time.