Archive for the ‘Not-So-Casual Commentary’ Category

Moralty Meters …

August 23, 2017

So I’m playing The Old Republic again, and am playing a Dark Side Sith Inquisitor … and running into fun with morality meters. Since I want my character to be fairly Dark-Sided, I’m choosing the Dark Side options as often as I can. TOR is very helpful in that it tells you which option is Dark Side and which is Light Side before you select it but some of the choices they make for that can be … jarring. Which leads me to consider issues with morality meters.

Shamus Young puts his finger on it while discussing the “Paragade” meter in Mass Effect:

One of my favorite illustrations of this problem is here on Virmire. The Salarians are going to attack Saren’s base head-on to create a diversion, while you sneak in the back. It’s basically a suicide mission for them. During your ingress, you run into several opportunities to make life easier or harder for the Salarians out front. You can destroy the Geth communications array. You can ground their air units. You can set off various alarms to make the enemy move into a different position. Each of these actions will allow you to fight more foes so your allies can fight less.

The paragon / renegade points are awarded under the assumption that taking more heat on yourself is altruistic and paragon-ish, and easing your way by dumping more foes on your allies is the renegade thing to do.

I saved Ashley because I love space-racism, but the game didn`t give me any renegade points for it.

Let’s ignore that fact that some of these actions (like blowing up the communications array) can easily happen by accident in a firefight, without you even realizing you’d done something other than shoot some robots. What’s funny about this situation is when I tried playing through this section as a renegade. I wanted to fight as many Geth as possible, because they’re filled with lovely delicious XP that will level me up and let me kick more ass. The game assumed that I was killing these Geth because I wanted to help my allies, but in reality I was motivated by simple videogame bloodlust. Helping your allies is undeniably the optimal thing to do, so you kind of have to screw yourself here if you’re fishing for renegade points.

While I think he’s wrong in arguing that his OOC gameplay reasoning where he was destroying things only because he wanted more of that sweet, sweet XP is something that should be taken into account, he makes a good point that morality meters go wrong because, in general, they have a hard time determining what the intent of the character is in making that choice if there’s any ambiguity in intent there at all. In TOR, in one sidequest you can tell the truth about who the Revanites are, or lie and tell the investigator that it is his Sith Master who is the leader of the Revanites. The game assumes that lying is Light Side because it is helping to keep the Revanites hidden and working against the Empire, and telling the truth is Light Side. However, my ambitious Sith saw advantages in lying about it, by shaking up the power structure above her leaving room for her to gain power and influence at their expense. This would seem to be pretty Dark-Sided, but I got Light Side points for it anyway, because the game had no idea of knowing why my character did what she did.

Another case is with the bones of Turak Hord and your companion Khem Val. The bones can be used to control Khem in some way, but he reveres them. You can choose to destroy them or not. If you destroy them, you get Dark Side points (I think) and preserving them gives you Light Side points. But a Light-Sider could destroy them as a means to help Khem Val move on from his dead former master, while a Dark-Sider might preserve them in the hopes of having another hold on Khem to enslave him even further. Because the game can’t determine your intent, it gives you Dark and Light Side points on the basis of relatively shallow determinations.

None of this would matter that much if the morality meter doesn’t matter that much to anything in the game. But if the morality meter doesn’t have an impact, then why is it there? In a Star Wars game, of course, it’s there because the setting builds it in, but in something like Mass Effect if it’s there it had better do something good. And it generally does, but then you have the frustrations of it not aligning with your character’s morality because it doesn’t take your character’s intent into account.

Chuck Sonnenburg at SF Debris commented in his playthrough of Dragon Age that he really liked that there wasn’t a morality meter, but that the actions you take have consequences in the world. Unlike the other games, Dragon Age doesn’t judge you on your actions, but instead tries to give you reasonable consequences for your actions, in terms of the reactions of your companions and of the people in the world. Yes, those actions often have consequences that might be considered negative, but as long as those consequences are ones that reasonably follow from what actions you take that’s fine. And I agree with him on that. If, for example, you defile Andraste’s ashes, you can certainly imagine that Leliana and even Wynne are going to be upset with you and even react violently. And if you think that you have reasons that make that worth attempting, then the game even manages to preserve character intent by letting the character decide if they made a hasty decision that had consequences they didn’t foresee, that they took negative consequences because they really thought it was the best choice, or even that they don’t think those consequences were bad at all, and were in fact all part of the plan.

It’s really, really hard to accurately capture character intent in a video game, but for a morality meter to really work you need to do that or else the meter ends up judging morality in ways that make no sense to the character and player. So it might just be better to stop trying and instead just give reasonable consequences. Of course, that itself has some issues …

Final Thoughts on Sabrina the Teenage Witch

August 21, 2017

So, I finished watching the entire series of “Sabrina the Teenage Witch”. And at the end of the day, I quite enjoyed it.

The main reason is that while it is often very, very, very stupid, and most of Sabrina’s problems are mostly caused by her essentially not learning the lessons she should have learned from previous episodes, the show is, in general, just plain fun and doesn’t take itself all that seriously. I can compare it to sitcoms like, say, “Three’s Company” (although some might not find that a compliment). But, in general, those are sitcoms that are just built around madcap adventures that happen to befall the characters, and if the characters actually learned from previous episodes that wouldn’t happen anymore. So just as Jack and Janet really should just talk to each other instead of trying to hide things from each other and other people, Sabrina really should learn to a) think more carefully before she uses magic to fix something and b) tell her aunts about it when things go wrong, because they are going to find out and, well, she usually needs them to tell her how to fix the problem before it becomes an utter disaster anyway. But I’m willing to be more forgiving of a sitcom than I would be of something else, precisely because the fun would be ruined if they actually did. And, to its credit, the show lampshades this frequently.

There’s also another incidence where the show seems to drop something that wasn’t really working. In season 7, Sabrina graduates from college and sets out to get a job as a reporter, with no success. However, Morgan used something Sabrina had written as a entry to a contest for a hip entertainment magazine called “Scorch”, and wins the contest. This starts off a chain of events that has Sabrina actually ending up working for them despite them thinking of her as, well, essentially a “square” while she sees them and the magazine as not being serious journalism.

Now, clearly the intent here would be to have a situation where the different personalities clashed and so provided conflict, but with the ability to present a nice and simple moral that Sabrina needs to lighten up and they need to take things more seriously. But it just never worked at all. Part of the issue is that Sabrina had already been doing an intern on a paper in season 6, and the boss Mike — played by George Wendt of Cheers fame — had provided an excellent example of the right sort of boss there: he was often nonplussed by Sabrina’s over-enthusiastic personality, but under it all he was a bit of a softie and kinda on her side. Her boss at Scorch (Annie) on the other hand is against Sabrina from the start, mostly because Sabrina was chosen by the publisher despite the fact that Annie disliked her. There’s nothing there, then, to contradict the idea that she was only tolerating Sabrina until she could get a chance to fire her, which was brought up in the final episode with Scorch. Also, in order for the clash to work we needed to see them as somewhat frivolous and not serious, so that Sabrina’s idea that they were slacking had at least some justification. But if you liked Sabrina and her personality — and if you watched her for six seasons you probably did — it was going to be difficult to not agree with her about them and that this is more flash than substance. Add in that most of her co-workers didn’t like her most of the time and jumped to conclusions about her while trying to compete with her for things like covers, and we aren’t likely to like any of the characters at Scorch, which is going to make it difficult for us to tolerate the interactions there, which were a big part of the first half of the season.

However, at about that point they … jettisoned it completely. Sabrina gets all nervous about her performance review, Annie reveals that she now has the ability to fire Sabrina if she doesn’t like the review, Sabrina takes on a spell to make her not make any mistakes, which makes her annoyingly perfect and meddling, Annie fires her for that, Sabrina makes her cases for staying, Annie seems to relent … and Sabrina then immediately goes off griping about how she doesn’t deserve to be treated this way and quits, moving on to do freelancing. Since Scorch figured prominently in the credits, they probably didn’t plan on ditching it this way, and on reflection even the sudden shift seems like a move to drop it even though the original plan would have been to keep her working there. Maybe they saw it wasn’t working, or maybe people didn’t like it, or maybe they just decided that they needed to drop it to have the time to focus on other things, but whatever the reason, like reducing Libby and Sabrina’s fighting over Harvey this move improved the show immensely.

There were also a large number of celebrities featured on the show, and it seems to me that what Scorch added was an easy way to work them into the show. Still, they managed to do it without Scorch and Scorch itself was annoying enough to not be worth keeping.

Typically at the end and the last seasons of shows I end up getting tired of the show and wanting it to end because I have another show in mind and want to get on to that one. That didn’t happen here. In fact, I suspect that I could just start re-watching it again immediately, as I kinda missed it the next day I came to watch something else (Transformers, actually). That almost never happens for me. The only time I can really remember it happening was, I think, with Deep Space 9. And the reason is because the show is just fun to watch. And since I had a hard time reading while watching it, I also managed to, for the most part actually watch it. It’s not a great show, and I could tear it to pieces if I wanted to go all SF Debris on it, but it’s just so much fun that I’m willing to forgive it.

Why Doesn’t Sabrina Count as a Role Model for Girls?

August 16, 2017

As you might be aware, I’m currently watching “Sabrina the Teenage Witch”. And it’s interesting to note that it was a remarkably successful series. It ran for seven seasons and spawned a relatively successful cartoon spin-off. It also managed to outperform a number of male-led contemporaries. And it ended in 2003, so it hasn’t been that long since it was on.

And yet, when people are talking about the need for female role models, they neither mention the series as being an example of a series that worked, nor suggest reviving it to be that series that girls purportedly need. Instead, all the talk is about there not being any such examples and for the need to convert all of the male-led series to female-led ones to promote “diversity” and “inclusion”. Why is that?

In a comment on my post about a female Doctor Who, Nate suggests that what they want is a cultural institution, or at least to have something with that sort of name recognition. However, given its long prominence in Archie Comics, Sabrina has that name recognition, and there are a number of other characters and series that also have that that they could promote, and yet they still don’t. Sure, Sabrina isn’t as well-known as The Doctor, but nothing is, and that hasn’t stopped them trying to convert less well-known properties (like Thor). So I think that there is a simpler interpretation here: they don’t push for these things because they aren’t aware that they exist.

A lot of the recent pushes seem to have something in common: a link to popular culture. When Doctor Who was just a show for science fiction nerds and nerd culture was something to be mocked and avoided, there wasn’t a huge push to make it diverse, or criticisms of its diversity. Sure, they existed, but in general they were small comments inside the science fiction community. But once nerd culture started to become “popular”, then the criticisms started. But those criticisms, then, came from people who were mostly inside pop culture but weren’t at all inside nerd or science fiction culture. Thus, the people complaining about it were people who in general didn’t care for science fiction, fantasy, superheroes, video games, and so on, but were instead people jumping onto the new big thing and criticizing it for not being exactly what they wanted it to be. But their criticisms were, therefore, always shallow criticisms, as they only had a shallow understanding of the field, and so didn’t know what things already existed that they might have liked better. They only got what had broad appeal and then criticized the entire genre for not having things that appealed to them specifically.

This explains why no one is talking about “Sabrina the Teenage Witch”, even though most of them can cite “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”, despite the fact that the two series ran at the same time (Sabrina ran from 1996 – 2003, while Buffy ran from 1997 – 2003). Sure, Sabrina is more obscure, but many of these people consider themselves to be insiders who are doing massive amounts of research and making strong, facts-based arguments, and so you’d think they’d come across it at some point. This also explains why Anita Sarkeesian’s research is so shallow and ignores things like Fatal Frame, Silent Hill III (which is the game that Silent Hill: Revelation is based on), Suikoden III, Final Fantasy X-2 and the female City Elf storyline in Dragon Age while being cited by her fans as, well, actually having in-depth knowledge of video games based on stringent research. What gets referenced in pop culture gets noted, and anything else is ignored because it doesn’t exist for them.

Thus nerd culture was criticized as soon as it entered the sphere of pop culture. Never mind that the people criticizing it had no idea what it actually was or entailed; instead, they took the things they had seen as the totality of the field and praised and criticized it accordingly. The same thing happened to anime when it was in vogue, and also spawned the criticisms of violence in video games and the criticisms of hard rock/heavy metal music. In all cases, a bunch of ill-informed people took on what they were now noticing because it was becoming more mainstream.

This explains why most of the attempts to create these new “inclusive” works tend to fail miserably. The people advocating for them are not, in general, people who actually like those things or people who know a lot about the genres, but are instead bandwagon-jumpers demanding that the bandwagon take them where they want to go instead of where most of the others want to go. If they manage to get there, they find that almost everyone else has gotten off already and so it’s not popular anymore … and that it was popular was the only thing that attracted them to it in the first place. Thus, people attempting to follow their directions end up losing their core audience — who were interested in the field in general — while ultimately losing the fickle “Pop Culture Warriors” who didn’t actually like those sorts of works in the first place. If these people liked those genres and simply wanted to add a few more “inclusivity” elements, that wouldn’t be a problem, but they don’t and so don’t know anything about it, and so end up trying to remake it into what they think they want … but which they don’t really want.

You could easily remake “Sabrina the Teenage Witch”, either as a teen comedy, or a normal sitcom, or as horror. That no one even bothers to think of it suggests that they aren’t creative and don’t know what they’re talking about. Either way, these are not the sort of people you should let tell you how to write your stories.

First Thoughts on “Sabrina the Teenage Witch”

August 7, 2017

Maybe I shouldn’t admit to it, but I’ve started watching “Sabrina the Teenage Witch” after picking it up on DVD. At some point, I was reminded that the show existed, and remember watching it off-and-on while it was being broadcast, and finding it entertaining. I went to Amazon and found a collection of the complete series — all seven seasons — for a reasonable price, although it wasn’t exactly cheap. I watched a couple of other things first — I was worried for a while that I wouldn’t be able to just watch it and in the summer there are times when I want all the lights off to keep things cooler — but then decided to just give it a try.

I’m actually really enjoying it. In fact, right now the most annoying thing about it is that the pacing of the show is so good that I have a really hard time reading while watching it, which means that my re-reading of “The Tamuli” is going really, really slowly. While it being a half-hour show certainly helps with that, I think it’s more that when you look up to see what’s going on — inspired by something loud or exploding — the show just keeps moving from scene to scene to scene, one right after the other, so there’s no real downtime that would make you look down again and get caught up in the book.

I think that one of the reasons I liked it was because of its “Multiple Demographic Appeal”. From the TV Tropes entry:

Multiple Demographic Appeal: In her autobiography, Melissa Joan Hart describes the show as this. Younger kids would love the magic, teenagers would relate to Sabrina’s problems fitting in, red-blooded males would enjoy the pretty female cast, and the magic would also appeal to older viewers nostalgic for Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie.

But I also think the show does some things that make a female protagonist more generally appealing, and also manages to avoid some of the more annoying teen sitcom tropes. What’s good about the show is that while pretty much all of the main protagonists are female — except for Salem — the show isn’t really about female protagonists. While the viewpoint character is female and often the show is indeed clear about that, the problems that Sabrina has to deal with aren’t particularly female-oriented. Almost all of her “normal teen” issues are issues that pretty much all teens can relate to, and her fantastical problems also tend to be mostly neutral. Even if someone wouldn’t, say, want to go to the club with all available guys, even guys will understand wanting to go to a place with attractive, dateable people. So, again, while the perspective was female, there weren’t all that many cases where men and boys couldn’t relate to what was going on.

The show starts by setting up the typical “Betty and Veronica” situation with the standard “Veronica is an unsympathetic Alpha Bitch who is just there to annoy and clash with our nice heroine” with Libby. However, physically Libby is no where near as attractive as Sabrina is. The typical situation has the ordinary Betty compared with the more exotic and exciting Veronica, but while Libby is at least in theory richer than Sabrina, she just can’t compete with Sabrina on anything important. Sabrina is more attractive than Libby, nicer than Libby and more compatible with Harvey than Libby, and Harvey isn’t presented as someone that can be impressed by money (a nice car, maybe). To the show’s credit, either they always intended this or they realized it was happening really quickly and this line is quickly dropped, with Libby still trying on occasion but usually only when she has some kind of in, and Harvey makes it clear that he isn’t really interested. At first, he doesn’t notice how mean Libby is because she’s always nice to him, and then later falls into some of her traps because he can’t say “No” or is generally clueless, and then later makes it directly clear that he isn’t interested. Libby remains an antagonist for the first three seasons, but isn’t taken seriously as a romantic rival very often past the first half of season one.

It also manages to avoid the oh-so-common “Incredibly attractive female lead/sidekick can’t get a date because she’s not attractive enough”. Both Jenny and Valerie are attractive, although not as attractive as Sabrina is (Melissa Joan Hart, at the time, was incredibly attractive, even for a TV star). And they are both presented as girls who have a hard time getting dates. But usually it wasn’t their attractiveness that caused the issue. Jenny was eccentric, and seemingly in response to getting ostracized — mostly by other girls — for those traits, embraced the eccentricity and became almost an early hipster, embracing the things that were non-standard and rejecting out of hand those that were popular and making that an important part of her identity, which made her really annoying at times. Valerie had a strong underlying desire to be popular, but had crippling self-esteem issues. When Sabrina changes herself into a boy to see what Harvey was thinking when she wasn’t around, Sabrina “dates” Valerie — to keep Harvey from doing it — and notes that Valerie messes up by spending so much time talking about how no one wants to date her and how she never gets second dates, which Sabrina herself notes is a bad idea (and Valerie does the same thing on a “date” with Harvey). So it’s less their looks and more their personalities that are responsible for them not getting dates. And both are given guys who are interested in them. Jenny gets one on the trip to Salem and Valerie has a boyfriend for a couple of episodes and has a requited crush on Gordie. This allows the show to still play up them being dateless while allowing for episodes where they, for example, double date.

The show is a lot like “Charmed” in a lot of ways, but especially in how most of Sabrina’s problems come from her not learning the lessons she learned in previous episodes and doing something stupid with her magic, and not learning from previous episodes that hiding it from her aunts only makes it worse, especially since she often needs their help to fix the things she’s screwed up. But the show lampshades that on occasion and I’m more willing to forgive that in a sitcom than I am in an action-drama. The show can be incredible stupid at times, though, both with entire episodes and with sequences inside episodes.

I also like the Canadian references tossed in, likely due to Caroline Rhea — who played Hilda — being Canadian. While they name drop it on occasion, Hilda gets deported back to the “Northern part of the realm” for speaking too much like a Canadian, and I think the national anthem was the Canadian one. It’s fun for them to do that, and allows them to appeal to a shared audience with things that if you don’t know Canada won’t seem out of place.

Ultimately, I’m finding it entertaining, although Season 4 is starting a bit rough. But I should be able to go through it and will likely watch it again at some point.

Folding Ideas’ “Thermian Argument”

August 4, 2017

So, while reading the comments on a post about the new female Doctor, someone linked this video from “Folding Ideas” about the “Thermian Argument”, which is in its roughest form an argument against criticizing part of a work because it is consistent with the universe that it is in. As you might expect, the main examples are of typical Social Justice type situations. The specific example used in the beginning is that someone is watching an anime and finds the constant depictions of Orks raping and brutally murdering female characters disturbing, especially given the presumed frequency of those scenes and how long those scenes go on for. The reply is that the Orks were established as being like that, and so the work is just showing us what their established behaviour is, and I will go no more into what the typical response would be because the original video doesn’t really do that and it’ll be more important as a counter later.

So, let me go into the video’s actual argument. The argument is that things like consistency and purity aren’t relevant to fictional worlds because they are fictional, and thus don’t really exist. For all of the time he spends talking about it, what he never manages to do is, well, make this an actual argument that has any heft to it whatsoever. Yes, fictional worlds are not real worlds, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have rules and that it doesn’t establish any kind of “objective truth” that writers need to hew to. To take his example of how to kill a vampire, he at the start asks how to kill one, and then at the end insists that it is irrelevant because vampires are fictional and so there is no objective way to kill them. Which is in some sense true, as different works may use different means to kill them. However, what we are talking about is consistency in-universe, and in-universe there will be established means to kill vampires. If the writer wants to suddenly make one of those means not work on a particular vampire, they are going to need to explain why in this case it doesn’t even though it was established that it would, indeed, kill a vampire. If it doesn’t, then what we have is a hack writer who is essentially “breaking the rules” in order to tell the story they want to tell, but can’t either find a way to make that work given those constraints or isn’t willing to compromise their vision in order to be consistent with the universe they’re writing in.

But, the reply can go, does that even matter? Well, yes, it really, really does. In order to get engrossed into a work, we have to accept that the events in the universe are, in fact, really happening. Part of that is understanding how, in fact, the universe works, which means knowing what the rules are. Thus, the writer needs to set expectations for us so that we can, well, know what to expect and so don’t start questioning everything that happens. So if a writer wants to have magic, they need to establish that magic exists in the universe, and ideally wants to set up as much as possible — without boring the audience with technical explanations — what it can do so that the audience doesn’t spend their huge dramatic character moments wondering if magic can really do that. Once we understand the rules of magic, anything consistent with that will be just ignored, allowing for the writer to just presume that we accept it and then be able to use it to drive things like plot, drama, and characterization. This even — and perhaps especially — holds if there are no set rules. If that’s established, then we stop looking for rules and just accept that anything that needs to happen will happen, and that it won’t happen when it needs to not happen. Since this still tends to kill drama — because the audience will simply expect a solution to appear when it needs to and so won’t be wondering if the hero can get out of this jam — it has to be handled very carefully as well.

What this all means is that if a writer starts breaking the established rules of a universe, people will notice. This will break immersion and require the writer to have a good explanation for why the rule was broken before they can be re-immersed into the universe. What a writer really wants to avoid is for the audience to start evaluating their work from a third-person perspective and opposed to feeling like they are observing an actual world. And in order to do that, they need to establish expectations and avoid violating those expectations without proper reasons and set-up. To return to the Ork example, if the expectation is built up that they would act that way, showing them acting differently would break immersion. That being said, that reply wouldn’t work against an argument that stated that they don’t need to spend so much time showing that, since we aware of it and will write it in if it isn’t explicitly shown, and that time might be better spent establishing other things.

At any rate, the main issue here is that in his Ork example the initial and more reasonable response isn’t the one he cites here. It is instead a simple “The maybe this work isn’t for you and you shouldn’t watch it”. If a work wants to be brutal and so focus on brutality in many scenes, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It just means that some people are not going to want to watch that sort of thing. And that’s fine. But we see in the video that he describes the real criticism as being a criticism of the choices the writers made, and here we can see the real objection in his example: he thinks that showing this brutalization of women is really there for no other reason than to brutalize women, which is bad. But this, then, takes the counter-argument to a completely different place than he accepts and argues against. The counter-arguments, in general, for such things — if made properly — would be along the lines of arguing that either a) this is a brutal universe and brutalization is shown consistently (implying that his objection is only to the brutalization of women for out-of-context reasons and, likely, personal ideology) or b) that the scenes are necessary to establish and remind the audience of just how brutal the Orks actually are. Both of these can be debated, of course, but none of them can be debated by arguing “This is a fictional world so we don’t need to follow the rules of the universe!” All of them require looking at the work and what the writer was trying to do and show either that what the writer is trying to do is wrong, or that they are going about what they are trying to do the wrong way. So, yes, you can criticize the choices of the writer, but doing so isn’t as simple as the video makes it seem. You can indeed invalidly criticize the choices of the writer, and the video’s defense of doing so doesn’t work for any of those cases.

This is essentially Sarkeesian’s comment that the world is fictional and so the writer can do whatever they want, which is a really bad argument, because the writer can’t afford to violate expectations too often without ruining the work. If the writer is trying for historical accuracy, then criticizing them for not including minorities in roles they would never have had in that timeframe is criticizing their goal, which is almost always not valid. And this holds even if they add some fantastical elements to their work; just because some parts don’t conform doesn’t mean that the parts that do can be simply changed without consequence. While the video insists that talking about consistency shuts down discussion, the reply actually does that even more so, because it refuses to engage with the universe at all and instead puts all of the discussion outside of the work itself, allowing no arguments that it would hurt the work itself or wouldn’t fulfill the purpose of the work. That it’s actually at best incomplete and at worst invalid is just the icing on the cake.

Yes, a simple reply of “This is consistent with the universe” is not enough to invalidate a criticism of a problematic scene. But a reply of “Fictional works don’t have to be consistent” is not enough to invalidate that defense and is in fact entirely false.

Thoughts After Re-Reading “The Elenium”

July 31, 2017

So, working my way through the David Eddings series that I actually liked — I think I tried reading one of “The Dreamers” and disliked it — I’ve just finished re-reading “The Elenium”. Remember, this — possibly along with “The Tamuli” — was my favourite of the series when I first read them, and this time after reading them back-to-back I was deliberately trying to compare them. And after doing so, my conclusion is … “The Elenium” is indeed significantly better than “The Belgariad” and “The Malloreon”.

One of the reasons, I think, is because it’s three books instead of five. It’s a bit shorter — looking at the collected books themselves, I’m not sure it’s that much shorter than the Belgariad, although it is definitely shorter than the Malloreon — and being only three books means that he doesn’t need to have as many reasonable endings to build towards to end that book on a high note that can be picked up in the next one. So, overall, the story can flow more and doesn’t have as much extraneous content.

Another reason is that for the most part the main cast is small and pretty much stays together for the entire series. Yes, he uses the tired old excuses of “The Younger Gods like symmetry!” to explain it, but we don’t have as many characters moving in and out of the story as we saw in the other works. That lets us get more used to the characters and so feel more attached to them, as well as allows him to elevate them above being simple stereotypes and archetypes. Also, when the characters do move out of the story they usually aren’t doing anything that important, allowing us to remain focused on Sparhawk and the other more main characters and so develop their plots and characterization without undue interruption. This means that pretty much all of the characters are more interesting and more developed than they were in the previous series.

Additionally, they don’t have the super-powerful, god-like characters of the previous series. Sparhawk is the main character, but while skilled he isn’t really a super-powerful, chosen-by-destiny character. Yes, they hint here that he is Anakha and so is outside of destiny, but in this series that’s mostly meaningless, other than that essentially he’s destined to be the guy who wields Bhelliom and probably because of that no one can tell what he will do with it. But Bhelliom here is a tool, not a presence. Sparhawk is skilled but no more overwhelming than any other magic-using knight would. The most powerful “normal” character is Sephrenia, and while she is very knowledgeable and very skilled at magic — and, again, very long-lived — she doesn’t know a lot of things and in general needs protection from physical attacks, unlike Belgarath and Polgara. Sparhawk is the person who is doing most of the investigation, and he doesn’t have a lot of advantages to make that all that much easier. The most powerful regular character is Aphrael, but she doesn’t do that much and really tends to act a lot like a Deus ex Machina most of the time. What this does is allow us to relate more to the characters because they are far more like normal people than most of those in the previous series.

This characterization also carries over to the villains. All of them are far better characterized than the villains in any of the previous series. As I’ve commented before, in “The Belgariad” Torak is the main villain and his henchmen mostly asides, but Torak isn’t developed enough for us to feel any pity for him at all, even though at the end we’re clearly supposed to. Ghwerig is only a minor villain, and yet in one short scene Eddings does more to get us to feel pity for his loneliness than he managed for Torak. While Azash is the god stand-in for Torak, the main antagonist is Martel, and his ending where Sparhawk finally kills him but Martel comments that he dies in the company of the only two people he ever really cared about is both emotional and fitting for that character.

Also, the quest structure and the dropping of specific prophecies to follow actually allows Eddings to work in those little side events that he loves so much more naturally. He can easily divert Sparhawk to rescue a besieged patriarch because while restoring Ehlana is important to the world, it’s not seen as being the one thing that can save it, and so it is easy to convince Sparhawk that while he has strong personal reasons for putting Ehlana’s life first, sometimes the at least seemingly “greater good” is to put that aside for some time and so other things. And since for most of the first two books they have no idea what they need to do to save Ehlana, they can chase all sorts of dead ends that serve no real purpose other than to do things that Eddings wants to do. In the previous series, it seems like an irrelevant distraction. Here, it not only seems less like that, but we can definitely feel that Sparhawk feels the same way, but has very good reasons to stop and do it.

And it also gets far more into politics than the previous series do. Yes, this is one that definitely appeals more to me personally than it does to others — after all, I also really like the political scenes in the Star Wars EU — but I loved the politics around electing the head of the Church and how all of that played out, and even wish it could have been longer.

That being said, I can see how some people might prefer the previous series because this one is far less “fantastical” than they were. The main religion is pretty much some form of Christianity, with the Church politics being modeled, it seems, a lot on Catholicism. The realms are very similar to standard medieval realms that we are all familiar with. The Styrics and the prejudice against them remind me a lot of the Jews. Thus, all of this is very, very familiar, whereas the history and institutions of the previous series were quite different. This also means that the previous series had a much deeper and more interesting lore than “The Elenium” does. So I can totally understand if someone finds “The Elenium” to be a bit pedestrian when compared to the previous series.

Also, I had thought that “The Elenium” and “The Belgariad” were quite different in story structure, but on reflection they actually aren’t. The first part of both is going out and finding the super-powerful jewel that they had lost and the second part is taking that jewel and going out to destroy the menacing god who is invading to try to get it. But I still think “The Elenium” just handles that so much better overall than “The Belgariad” did, with more interesting characters and a more interesting path to doing those two things.

Next, I’m reading “The Tamuli”, which I will also compare to the other works.

A Female Doctor Who

July 28, 2017

So, the next Doctor is going to be a woman. I’ve mused on this before:

The issues around a female Doctor are a bit more complicated. My first thought was that we had seen female Time Lords in the past, and had had no real reason to think that the Doctor’s regenerations could change gender, and so then we didn’t want to turn this into another “Dax” thing with male and female memories in the same body and all of the issues around them when we’ve gone for decades without having to worry about it. But then in some random surfing I found that it is possible that one of the Master’s incarnations was female, which means that that’s already there. I’m still not convinced it’s something worth exploring in Doctor Who, though, especially considering the shortness of those series.

Of course, the typical Social Justice people are generally thrilled with it, like Adam Lee. Of course, their arguments for it actually make me less inclined to support it because of just how bad they are and how they highlight potential complications and consequences that aren’t that great.

So, let me start with fandom in general, as any criticism of these things is always presented by them as simple misogynistic/racist ranting. Lee gives an example of one in his post:

I awoke this morning with a heavy sense of melancholic despondency, as if a dear lifelong friend had just died. Oh, wait a minute, a dear lifelong friend HAS just died. He was Doctor Who, albeit a fictional character in a sci-fi series but one who I’ve kept company with since the show began in 1963 when I was knee-high to a grasshopper. My now-adult children watched it, too, when they were younger. But the good Doctor has been slain by a small cabal of fanatical ideological fundamentalists in the name of “diversity” and “cultural relevance.”

I find that my waking melancholy is progressively giving way to vein-bulging rage, which is very childish of me and will give delight to virtue-signalling Guardian readers, whose intolerance and cruelty actually knows no bounds, despite their preposterous displays of right-on, Newspeak-approved compassion. While I’m still in the grip of that childishness, I should say that while of course I harbour no malice toward Ms Whittaker, I really do want the show to crash and burn after this preposterous casting decision…

Now, pause for second and consider this thought experiment. Imagine that the writers said that for the next series they were going to change the exterior appearance of the TARDIS to be something other than a police box. After all, people outside of Britain have never seen the things, and even in Britain they are quite rare, so new viewers are confused about just what it’s supposed to be. And it was established that the TARDIS had the ability to change its exterior to blend in, and that that circuit was broken. And even originally, it was just done to save money, but with current CGI that’s no longer necessary. So they’re just going to go ahead and fix it so that it blends in again.

Do you think that a large number of fans wouldn’t react to that in at least as strong a manner as Lee’s example?

Look, this is what we know about dedicated fandoms. First, they don’t particularly like change. Second, they certainly don’t like change for the sake of change. And thirdly, they particularly don’t like change that is aimed to appeal to an audience that isn’t them. Lee might want to consider this “entitled”, but for a dedicated audience this isn’t unreasonable. They were the ones who supported it all of those years. They are the ones that are responsible for it still existing, through their keeping it alive and in the public consciousness. Given how often these sorts of “changes” take away the things they like to add things that they don’t care for, they are right to fear those sorts of changes and are right to think that the writers shouldn’t be ignoring the existing audience to appeal to a new one, whether that is based on economic status, main stream status, or Social Justice status.

Peter Davison has rather mildly criticized the move:

But the 66-year-old told the Press Association: “If I feel any doubts, it’s the loss of a role model for boys, who I think Doctor Who is vitally important for. So I feel a bit sad about that, but I understand the argument that you need to open it up.

“As a viewer, I kind of like the idea of the Doctor as a boy but then maybe I’m an old fashioned dinosaur – who knows?”

Lee attempts to respond to that:

First: if this is really what you’re concerned about, let me assure you that boys growing up today are in no danger of being unable to find a male role model. Even if they don’t like Jodie Whittaker, the BBC isn’t throwing out old tapes anymore; they’ve got twelve male Doctors to choose from.

So, let’s consider a case where I decide to reboot the Sailor Moon anime using male characters, and when people say that doing so takes away important role models for girls I simply reply that they can still watch the original anime/cartoon and so that’s not a concern. Seriously, why in the world did he think that was even an argument? If he’d stuck with the standard line that there are already many similar role models for boys in other works — although those are getting rather thin on the ground — he’d at least have something that looked like an argument. This is just sad.

In the meantime, what’s so bad about letting the girls have a turn for once?

They did have a turn. It was called “The Sarah Jane Adventures”, was reasonably well-received, didn’t face this sort of criticism as far as I can recall, and only ended because the lead actress and namesake passed away. If they wanted to add role models for girls, all they needed to do was spin off another new show doing so. They could do, for example, “The Martha Jones Chronicles”, given her character development in Doctor Who. Or they could have spun off that lizard private detective and her lesbian lover with the Sontaran butler, which entertained me, at least, when they were on. If they had done so, then they could have maintained the role model for boys with the Doctor and added a role model for girls with the new series. If they really wanted a female Time Lord, they could have added one in Doctor Who and spun her off. But there’s always this insistence on changing existing characters for diversity or to add a role model for girls or minorities instead of adding new ones. This seems to be either a lack of creativity and imagination or else a cynical attempt to play off the existing popularity in order to support their own ideological convictions. Maybe one of them can reply here with a better explanation (although arguing about how hard it is to compete against established franchises doesn’t work here because since these are all spinoffs they would get the boost from the original franchise and, well, both The Sarah Jane Adventures and Torchwood worked out).

This also seems to miss the fact that even Doctor Who can provide those role models for girls. While Classic Who might have treated the Companions as, well, just companions the Modern Doctor Who clearly treats them as quite prominent and more as partners. The show has established how important they are to keeping The Doctor human, and a lot of the time the plots are driven not by The Doctor but instead by the Companions (“The Impossible Girl”, “The Girl Who Waited”, Rose, and so on). Why can’t Martha, Rose, Clara, and Amy be good role models for girls? Heck, Billie seems to be written precisely as one for girls and gay characters, so why don’t we have good role models for boys and girls right now? They could make a case if they were going to swap the Companion out with one who would be a good role model for boys … but they don’t seem to be doing that here. Thus, the whole model here really is taking a role model for boys away and not replacing it with anything, in a series that already had good role models for girls. That can’t be seen as anything other than a loss.

Also, it begs the question: why can’t boys look up to a woman as their role model? Davison takes for granted that this is the case, but doesn’t attempt to explain why.

Because the whole concept of the oft-cited arguments that we need to have more women as role models for girls pretty much refutes it? I don’t really see it as an issue that he accepts the argument that those who are pushing for a female Doctor are relying on in order to make his criticism. If we can expect boys to look up to women as role models, then we can expect girls to look up to men as role models, and then the whole role models argument falls apart (In little pieces on the floor, too wild to keep together, you know the rest). Since Lee references the “we need role models for girls” argument above, I’m not at all convinced that’s what he wants to do here.

There’s a profound failure of empathy here, one that’s at the root of many other problems: the idea that white men should only ever have to empathize with characters who look like them.

Which is balanced against the profound failure of empathy from Lee’s side, which both ignores that the counter-idea is that minorities can’t or shouldn’t have to empathize with white male characters — ie characters that don’t look like them — and that a lot of the reaction is due to the often explicitly cited justification for these changes that it will advance an ideology that is not theirs and that they are often neutral to as opposed to hostile to. Which ties back into the idea that if you want to make diversity or role models for girls an explicit goal creating something new or spinning off something would allow you to explore that ideological goal all you want without changing the existing thing in ways that might not work. Gee, it’s almost like empathy is a really bad method for figuring out how to deal with other people. Who knew?

Let me just quote his summary here:

There’s no way to appease people who are clinging to the past. The only way to introduce diversity to a classic series is to just get on with it, and ignore the mutters and grumbles of the troglodytes. It will soon seem like a natural, even obvious step, and the next generation of fans will wonder why anyone ever had a problem with it.

This just reflects perfectly the sanctimonious arrogance that characterizes Lee’s — and many other Social Justice advocates — arguments. He doesn’t actually have an argument here, contradicts himself and some of the key arguments used by his own side, has never established that it is good or even necessary to introduce diversity to a classic series, and yet someone this is just natural, obvious and only opposed by people “clinging to the past” and who are “troglodytes”. And remember, as proven I’m neutral on this, and his comments here are not helping his case, nor is his tone. The best way, it seems, to argue against diversity is to have Social Justice advocates argue for it, and that can’t be a good thing for their side.

Thoughts on Despicable Me and Despicable Me 2

July 17, 2017

So, Despicable Me 3 has come out, and they were selling Despicable Me and Despicable Me 2 in a Blu-Ray combo back for a decent price, so I bought and watched them. Now, I had watched and enjoyed the original when I had shomi (and I still haven’t replaced shomi) but this time when I watched both of them I noticed something, likely because it was even more pronounced in the second movie than in the first one:

The movies are overstuffed with shallow story and plotlines, so much so that the only way to really get the plotlines is because they are so tropey that we immediately recognize the scenes and what they indicate even if things aren’t set up properly in advance.

Margo (who might be my favourite character) gets hit the hardest by this. In the first movie, she gets mostly a perfunctory plot around not trusting that she’d really get a parent, ending with an emotional final “I love you Dad!” to Gru. But that wasn’t really touched on in at all in the movie, and her character — essentially being the mother figure for the girls — wasn’t going to admit that publicly anyway … or, at least, not where the others could hear it. So that final scene becomes “Oh, yeah, I see that she might have had that sort of feeling from some minor thing that she did earlier”, which loses the emotion of the scene. Sure, you can argue that the scene where she has to trust Gru to catch her counts, but again that wasn’t really set up that well and is one of the minor events that might indicate it but doesn’t strongly telegraph it. In the second movie, she has the whole sub-plot with the son of the villain, who ends up dumping her … but we get a short scene with her with the sombrero of depression or whatever that was and that’s about it, other than it getting them into the villain’s mansion and giving Gru a chance to act protective for about five minutes. That’s not enough to deal with the first crush and the depression of her heart being broken. Again, we recognize the events because we know that this is what happens, but they aren’t developed enough in movie for us to really get the emotional connection to work.

This is also seen with the scene where the agent is pondering leaving Gru in the airplane, and decides to go back to him. While, yes, we were aware that they were heading towards a relationship, this scene just jumps into the middle of the action with little set-up, runs through quickly, and ends with a flourish that isn’t justified by what they’ve done up to that point (they kinda had one date). Again, we recognize the trope, so we understand what’s happening, but we don’t get the emotional oomph from it.

And we see this with the head of the division, who is the interfering boss just because that’s what he is, and with the youngest girl’s mother speech, and in a number of other cases. We have common tropes tossed out there so that we recognize them, but each aren’t developed enough to generate the strong emotions of those tropes on their own.

Now, you can argue that these movies are aimed at kids, and kids don’t need and aren’t going to appreciate taking the time it would take to set these things up. The first response is that given that children are not going to be as steeped in tropes as adults relying on trope recognition to carry the plot is a risky move. The second response is that they could fix most of this by reducing the number of subplots which would give them the time to do them properly, and they can be done in a humourous way, since other works have done that time and time and time again.

That being said, the movies are paced well and entertaining, but the scenes where they rely on my recognizing the trope to really appreciate an emotional sequence kinda bug me … especially since there’s no reason why they have to do that.

Thoughts After Re-Reading “Polgara the Sorceress”

July 10, 2017

“Polgara the Sorceress” isn’t as good a book as “Belgarath the Sorcerer” was. And I think there are a number of reasons for why this is:

1) Most of the really big events were covered in at least historical detail in Belgarath the Sorcerer. Thus, all there really is for Polgara the Sorceress to do is fill in Polgara’s personal impressions and situation. But this means that we’re going over events that we’ve already gone over in detail again — and again, in some detail — just to add Polgara’s personal impressions to them. But unless you’re a huge Polgara fan, it doesn’t add that much to them. Things get a lot better when they start filling in the details of the things Polgara did while Belgarath wasn’t around — like what happened in Vo Wacune and Arendia — but those segments are too short and too few and far between to save the book. And this is a worse flaw because the two books aren’t really standalone. The framing of Polgara the Sorceress is that Polgara is filling in the details that Belgarath the Sorcerer left out — and often Polgara pokes at Belgarath for simply leaving details out. But despite having read the two books pretty much one right after the other I didn’t really notice any glaring omissions except for the things that Belgarath himself didn’t know. Thus, the framing is both underused and guarantees that everyone will remember the other book first and pretty much note that they should read it first before reading this one. I’m not certain, but I think that there will be places where a reader is confused or feels that something has been left out if they read Polgara the Sorceress before Belgarath the Sorcerer. Thus, you can’t just read Polgara the Sorceress, but reading Belgarath the Sorcerer first will make Polgara the Sorceress seem ponderous and repetitive.

2) The book actually damages Polgara’s character as described in Belgarath the Sorcerer, particularly with how it uses Poledra. In Belgarath the Sorcerer, Polgara was gifted and had a mind that worked in a certain way that allowed her to do certain great feats. In Polgara the Sorceress, much of the time that great skill came from Poledra tutoring her on it secretly. Thus, she didn’t pick it up quickly, but instead had already learned it by the time it came for her to be taught it. At the Battle of Vo Mimbre, the long-standing idea that Polgara had managed to resist Torak’s will which impacted him greatly had nothing to do with her, but was instead only Poledra. If it had been the case that Polgara herself screamed in defiance but that she needed the intimate connection with Poledra to buttress her will and allow her to not have to face Torak “alone”, that would be one thing, but instead Poledra shuffles Polgara out of the way and takes over herself. This makes Polgara a spectator in her most famous event and removes the strongest display of her character in the entire series. After the fall of Vo Wacune, Belgarath the Sorcerer implies that Polgara fell into a great and angry despondency, similar to that of Belgarath when Poledra “died”, which provided an interesting parallel and gave them something in common, a common experience that they could at least arguably build on. Instead, she was pretending to be that way while secretly planning her revenge an organizing the war back in Sendaria/Erat. This a major plot hole because if Belgarath and the others because she acts as if she had to hide that from them, but if they really cared they’d have almost certainly been able to detect her scheming or at least would have paid attention to what was happening back in Arendia and noted her influence. So either they didn’t really care — at which point she didn’t have to hide it — or they did care but then didn’t bother to keep track of her well-enough to catch her influence (and Belgarath the Sorcerer implies that their greatest concern was that she didn’t try to will herself out of existence). But on top of that, Polgara had lost a city that was very important to her and, as she thought at the time, the love of her life … and she’s able to plan an elaborate deception of her father and uncles while coordinating a brilliant battle plan to get revenge? Doesn’t seem like she cared all that much about them, did she? Over and over, events make Polgara less skilled, less complex and less interesting a character.

3) All that there really is to the book is Polgara’s personal impressions, but Polgara isn’t all that interesting a character. Most often, she’s an opinionated bully. Sure, Belgarath is a bully, too, but for him most of the time he bullies people to get the job done so that, mostly, he can get back to doing the things that he really, really wants to do. He admits that he’s lazy and unscrupulous and has numerous flaws, and in general is a more interesting and humourous character to follow. Polgara is often dreadfully serious and seems to have no actual serious flaws, and never really seemed to grasp the import of the Events except perhaps when she was raising the heirs … which is given fairly short shrift in the book. Polgara and Ce’Nedra are both always described as characters that the others make a strong effort to avoid offending, but lots of people are willing to offend Belgarath all the time. Thus, she comes across as a full-on bully: do what I want or else. That’s not an interesting character to follow, and especially when we already know most of the historical details and so there’s little new there to discover. ‘Grat is not nice, but he cops to it. Polgara doesn’t.

At the end of the day, the book wasn’t a waste to read, but reading it right after Belgarath the Sorcerer really, really hurts it, as it has nothing to offer but Polgara, who is not that interesting a character to start with and is undermined by the work itself. For the most part, you could stop after Belgarath the Sorcerer and not really miss much.

Next up: The Elenium and The Tamuli.

Thoughts After Re-Reading “Belgarath the Sorcerer”

July 3, 2017

So, as I’m sure I’ve said before, I plan on working through all of my David Eddings books, and while I’m doing that I might as well finish them. I’m concluding my re-reading of the Garion works with “Belgarath the Sorcerer” and “Polgara the Sorceress” before moving on to the series that I liked the best, which are the Sparhawk works (The Elenium and the Tamuli).

Belgarath the Sorcerer is a “and now you know the rest of the story” work. It’s even explicitly set up as such as the framing of the work is that Ce’Nedra wants to know the rest of the story and manipulates Belgarath into telling it, with the help of various others. And as that sort of work, it really does work. It fills in a lot of the details and backstory around what happened, filling in a bit of the lore and giving it more life, while still keeping the style of the original works. Telling it from Belgarath’s perspective really adds to the work, as it allows for a more personal perspective on events that we had only previously heard about from a more dry historical perspective, and keeps it from being a dull recitation of things that happened. The book is long, but like pretty much everything Eddings has done in this series it moves along quickly so it never really seems like a drag.

The book would be absolutely meaningless and uninteresting if you haven’t already read the Belgariad and the Malloreon, but after having read them it does well to fill in some of the gaps in an interesting way.

Next up: Polgara the Sorceress.