Archive for the ‘Philosophical Writer's Guide’ Category

Further Thoughts on Cheers (End Season 5)

October 23, 2017

So, the first five seasons of Cheers is dominated by the Sam and Diane relationship. Which is unfortunate, because this arc is the least interesting out of the ones they had, featuring the least interesting characters — at least at the time — and is also filled with nonsense in an attempt to wring dramatic tension out of the relationship.

At the end of Season 3, Diane is proposed to by Frasier, accepts, and then tries to call Sam to, it seems, get him to admit his feelings for her and/or talk her out of it. When Sam finds out about the upcoming marriage, he rushes off to Italy to try to stop the wedding. The arc ends at the beginning of Season 4 with Diane having left Frasier at the altar, and Sam having had to go through a number of trials to stop a wedding that never happened. And both Sam and Diane are quite aware that the other did that.

So how come they don’t get together after that? At that point, neither of them can really deny their feelings for each other, and there isn’t even a real explanation of them thinking that the passion was there but that the relationship wouldn’t work. Even then it’s clear that they aren’t going to be able to move on any time soon, and so at a minimum Diane probably should have stayed away from the bar and gotten a job somewhere else. But none of that happens because the show can’t let that happen, but there’s really no way to top this when it comes to their relationship. If this event didn’t convince them to get married or at least get back together, it seems that nothing could. And yet they still have to play this tired arc out and try to keep the tension in this relationship going somehow.

After a full season of this, they have Sam date a politician, who says that she wants marriage. This triggers Sam to think about marriage, and ultimately to ask Diane to marry him, who initially says “No” and then reconsiders, only for Sam to withdraw the offer. Not only is this in and of itself mostly ridiculous, it leads to Diane adopting the very annoying trait of consistently insisting that Sam is going to ask her again while Sam vehemently denies it. And the worst part of it is that given what has gone on before we know that Diane is right, but she’s being very smug and annoying about it. In an episode where Diane smugly insists that he will ask her that day, he does … and she says “No” again. At which point, they probably should just give it up, but instead they go to court and the judge insists that Sam propose in order to not be charged, which he does, she accepts, and they head to the end of the season planning a wedding. Which was also stupid, as it never really resolves why Diane said “No” the other times.

But since they don’t get married at the end of the season, you’d think that what makes them break up would follow from that, right? Nope … well, at least not directly. What happens is that Diane’s first fiance Sumner conveniently comes back right before the wedding — I think it was in the season finale — and says that he’s sent Diane’s book to an editor friend of his who thinks that it might be worth publishing, but only if Diane finishes it. He later confirms that it would be published, setting up a situation where it is believed that Diane has to choose between marrying Sam now or finishing the book. Sam convinces her — over her protests — to take the time to finish the book, which just happens to involve her going to Sumner’s cottage somewhere for six months. Diane insists that she’ll return, but she never does and the book deal ends up falling through. Diane is hinted at having gone to Hollywood to write for TV, probably a comment on Shelley Long focusing on making movies after that point.

But here’s why this really doesn’t work for me: bringing Sumner in at that point was just too convenient. Everyone should have suspected that he was doing this to try to break Sam and Diane up and possibly make a move on her himself. That he happens to send her novel off at pretty much the same time as he found out about the wedding and happens to send it to a friend who happens to think it will work and it just so happens that he has a secluded place available for her to work is an awful lot of happens to absorb, and yet no one questions his motives. If this had been set up more episodes in advance where there would have been time to question and verify what was happening, this would have worked out so much better. As it stands, it really looked to me like Sam and Diane got suckered by Sumner.

You can argue that Shelley Long’s decision to leave came too late to really do that sort of set-up, but then all they needed to do was have Sam or Diane have doubts about what her consistent “Nos” meant. Even if they had to leave the door open for her to return, this could have easily been resolved with her deciding that she needed more meditation time and then resolving that either way at the beginning of this season. As it stands, it’s a nonsensical ending to a nonsensical and boring story arc.

This is not helped by Diane being Flanderized a bit and becoming more annoying because of it. She always did have a streak of thinking that she was smarter and better than she really was, but she was always presented as being cultured and, for the most part, having some talent but ruining it by being overly ambitious and thus complicating everything. In Season 5, she’s far less competent and far more often overlooks failings that she really should have been able to spot. For example, in one episode she is trying out for ballet and gets a bad review of her abilities. To be nice, Frasier changes the recommendations to be more flattering, which ends up prompting her to barge in and try out for a professional ballet troupe to follow her dream, but Sam and Frasier stop her before she can make a fool out of herself. The problem is that she had a video of it, which makes everyone in the bar laugh at how ridiculous she looks. It’s perfectly reasonable for her to not see how her dancing really looks while dancing it, so that’s fine. But she watches it with them. And despite her having to know what the dance should look like, she thinks she did well, and it’s only when they tell her that they faked the review that she realizes otherwise. Well, sure, she might decide to trust the famous teacher over her own opinion, especially when that tells her what she wants to hear … but Diane had shown some self-awareness in the past, and this just sails right on past it. We might be able to believe that she could delude herself that badly about writing or poetry — although in those cases given how she does immerse herself in those media she’d likely be more derivative and think herself creative than be really, really bad — but with this she really should have known better.

And it isn’t even funny.

However, Cheers can be clever at times, and by now we’re starting to see its strength, which is its characters. Sam and Diane as characters work so much better when they are supporting the other characters and not hogging the spotlight. The relationship between Frasier and Lilith is much, much more interesting that the one between Sam and Diane. After starting from a disastrous first date, they end up on a show together, and Diane realizes that Frasier is in love with Lilith. Given her nature, she decides to intervene and tell Lilith about it, and then try to make her over in order to attract Frasier. What’s wonderful here is that when Diane tells Lilith that Frasier is in love with her, Lilith’s immediate reaction is that she’s not the type of pretty girl that people fall in love with, which made me immediately react with puzzlement. This seemed to come out of nowhere, and Bebe Neuwirth is a very attractive woman. But this results in Fridge Brilliance when you realize that the person who, so far, has made the biggest deal out of her looks is … Lilith. Diane simply says that she needs to dress better and use more … some makeup. Frasier, when he badmouths her, tends to talk about how cold and emotionally repressed she is, not about how unattractive she is, and give his personality he wouldn’t have asked her out the first time if he didn’t find her attractive. And if anyone else comments on that, it’s as a quick aside. Thus, it’s easy to imagine that she might have been awkward as a teen, and to avoid the teasing retreated to what she was better than most people at, which was things that involved intelligence, and thus cultivated the ideal intellectual manner, including the look. Since she wasn’t surprised that Frasier asked her out the first time, she had to think that her peers at least wanted to have sex with her, but could have fobbed it off as being the result of a male dominated field and her being one of the few women available. Her cold manner and aggressive intellectualism — worse than Frasier at lot of the time, who is pretty bad at it himself — would make most men not want to pursue a relationship with her, justifying her comment, and we can note that that is indeed what Frasier dislikes about her, and her more open style of dress and reaction to his flirting is probably more responsible for what gets his attention than simply that she looked hot. This underlying dynamic makes the relationship a lot more interesting than the shallow — and quickly dropped — idea of the cultured vs the everyday clash of Diane and Sam.

What the later seasons did better was avoid the split between the moral cultured class and the immoral or amoral working class. When Norm finds out that the person he is up against for a promotion is sleeping with the boss’ wife, while Diane is clearly opposed to him using that to get the promotion, Carla is also strongly opposed and Sam is uncertain about doing that as well. It’s pretty much left to Cliff to push for Norm doing it, and even here there isn’t a clear right answer.

That Norm doesn’t do it leads to another example of the importance of character. After he choose not to do it, the boss tells him that the reason Norm lost the promotion to the other person was that Norm’s wife Vera didn’t fit in with the other wives. Vera really wanted him to get the promotion so that they could buy a house. Norm is outraged and ends up quitting, and then has to tell his wife what happened. While he says that he plans to tell her the truth, he can’t hurt her that way, and so ends up accepting all the blame himself, proving that he really loves her despite his constant comments about her. This character development only carries on later when Diane tries to help Norm get noticed at a new job and get a promotion, and after his colleague steals Norm’s — bad, as it turns out — idea Norm finally says that he doesn’t want to big a big shot and just wants to be a worker drone, and is happy that way.

Woody makes a better replacement for Coach — the actor passed away in Season 3, I think — because as someone who is young you can maintain the naivete and stupidity without ever having to use the character as a mentor, which works against that. And Carla’s sniping got old, as it seems that pretty much everything she said was a snipe and it often interrupted the show to try to get in some cheap humour, which hurt her as a character.

So far Cheers is still “Okay”. Sometimes it’s clever and sometimes monumentally stupid. As I go on into season six, I’m finding that there’s more clever and less stupid, which is a good thing.

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The Politicization of Games

October 16, 2017

So, in another video, Extra Credits talked about politics in gaming and, specifically, the calls to get politics out of gaming. This sentiment is opposed by the argument that it can’t be done because, as they put it, “All media is political”.

Unfortunately, there is a major problem with their argument. In an aside, they say that we shouldn’t get rid of politics in games whatever that means because of what politics in games brings to them and to other works, but by so saying they reveal that they don’t know or at least aren’t certain what those who want to get politics out of games mean when they say that. And yet they spend the entire video talking about politics in media and why it can’t be taken out of games, and making the bold statement that “All media is political”. This is an argument ripe for equivocation, where they spend their time arguing against people who don’t like politics in games by using their definition of politics, while ignoring the definition that those on the other side of the argument are using. Thus, they can insist that politics in media are good and that all media is political as if they are refuting those people, while never actually addressing the sense in which their opponents use the term to argue that politics in media are bad and that not all media are indeed political.

Which, if you watch the video, seems to pretty much be the case. They tend to argue that politics are the examination of real world issues, political concerns, philosophies, and ethical dilemmas, and that these things are part and parcel of what make up people and also provide some of the best conflicts in games, and that therefore games without politics would have to drop all of those sorts of examinations. The problem is that when most people argue against politics in a media, what they really mean is not examination of issues inspired by real life, but instead has as its primary intent an attempt to argue for a specific idea, with the aim of convincing the consumer of that media that their position is the correct one. It doesn’t examine the issue as much as it propagandizes it, setting up the world and the outcome so as to present the consumer with what they hope is a compelling argument to adopt their viewpoint. In general, such attempts are not subtle, and are often heavy-handed, because the message has to be received and understood by the consumer or else the work didn’t do what it was intended to do.

They give examples of some works that did this, and one of them is Star Trek, which I think is a good example to use to demonstrate the difference. Star Trek TOS — which is what they pictured in the video — definitely reflects the political views of Gene Roddenberry, and deliberately invokes his ideas of diversity. However, what got it acclaim is that, for the most part, it explores and examines various issues without being overly obvious about its messaging. For most of the episodes, a case can and often is made for either side of the divide. For example, in “City on the Edge of Forever”, Edith Keeler is presented as someone who preaches the ideals of Roddenberry and of the Federation as presented, and yet those ideas being listened to at that time is presented as something that creates a disaster against the Nazis. The message of the episode is not that those ideals are wrong, nor that humans at the time, at least, were just too primitive to understand how right she was and that humanity is now more evolved, but instead the message is, as I believe is directly stated “She had the right ideas at the wrong time”. This allows everyone to enjoy the episode and the exploration even if they disagree with that specific message, or with any of the issues stated or explored in the episode. This can be contrasted with the more explicit messaging in Star Trek TNG, especially in the early seasons, where it was criticized for being so heavy-handed in its messaging that anyone who disagreed at all with it — and even some who did — found the Federation to be insufferably smug, constantly preaching their message and going on about how evolved they were now over those poor humans of roughly our time, as best exemplified by the first season episode “The Neutral Zone”. TOS explored issues, while TNG preached them.

Now, I personally don’t really mind if a creator wants to preach their worldviews and so makes a work of fiction specifically to try to promote them, as long as they are up front about that and, of course, that not all works try to do that, because works that aim for messaging tend to be less entertaining than those that aim for entertainment or to explore ideas. But another issue that we’re coming across here is the issue of politicization, where games and other media are being infested with strong politics with exploration of ideas and simple entertainment being pushed out. This happens in two ways:

1) Where various sources are pushing for games to insert more explicit political messages in order to become more mature or more relevant to the real world.

2) Where various sources push that games should only express certain specific political messages, usually ones that happen to align with their own personal views.

And this video, seemingly inadvertently, supports at least the first form of politicization, by saying that games are mature enough to handle politics and that politics are good and provide the conflict while conflating the exploring real world issues and views that people hold with political messaging. Because they don’t really examine in detail what the opponents of politics in gaming mean by that, they end up arguing by implication that any examination of a real world view or even anything inspired by that is at the same level as an explicit and direct attempt to arguing for a specific political or philosophical position, and thus justifying both equally. This is only made clear in their discussion of Missile Command as an example of politics in games, looking at nuclear proliferation … despite the fact that you could easily play and enjoy that game if you didn’t make that link at all. Their argument that all media is political is also undercut by games that were contemporaries of Missile Command that didn’t even have that subtle level of messaging and were at least as good as it, like Pac-Man, Defender and Asteroids. You don’t really need to have any kind of political message to make a good game.

Thus, they justify the proliferation of specific and deliberate political message by buying into the “All media are political” message which is also exemplified by the feminist “The personal is political” philosophical argument: if all media is political, then there really is no difference between a game that references real world messages or explores a real world political and philosophical issue, and a game that sets out to promote a specific political message. This idea is then used to deflect any criticism that the creator is really propagandizing their game or message by insisting that everyone does that, while ignoring that often they really aren’t, because they aren’t presenting any of those things as a conclusion, but are either simply copying them from society in order to relate better to their audience or that explore the issues without presenting either position on the issue to be necessarily right or better than anyone else’s. Thus, a game that happens to have a damsel in distress or engage in some fanservice is suddenly just as political as a game that tries to shame people for accepting or engaging in those tropes, and a game that explores the question of privacy concerns vs security against an enemy that could be anyone is just as political as a game that deliberately tries to show that privacy concerns should always trump security concerns.

What we are seeing in our increasingly polarized society is that more and more people want to use media not to produce a great creative work for people to enjoy but instead to promote their own specific ideas, and to criticize media that promote messages that they don’t agree with. This has, of course, been common throughout history. But what we’re seeing as society gets more polarized is that even not taking a side is seen by both sides as, in fact, taking the other side in the debate. So presenting both sides in a neutral way is political messaging, and simply referencing the ideas shallowly and building off of them to create the unrelated conflict in your work is also political messaging. Doing anything is a work is now, suddenly, political messaging.

Because, after all, “All media is political”.

Gaming and Power Fantasies

October 9, 2017

So, I came across a video by Extra Credits talking about the problem with power fantasies and subtitling it “We Aren’t Always Right”. Now, as it’s a video quoting directly from it is a bit difficult, so let me try to sum up what I think the main argument is:

Most games contain some kind of power fantasy element, but for true power fantasies to work we have to always be right. This can lead to bad and potentially dangerous ideas. They think it would be good if games stopped for self-reflection and asked if the player’s powerful actions really are right, and take on what they seem to think is the main argument against that that it would ruin the power fantasy by arguing that those looking for a power fantasy are not so fragile as to have their experience ruined by such a thing, and so more games should do it.

The problem is that the entire video is short and incredibly vague. It moves from talking about games having power fantasy elements to talking about a true power fantasy, but gives no way to determine what counts as a power fantasy element vs a true power fantasy, and so leaves us no way to distinguish the two. Which is incredibly important, it turns out, as we need to know that to determine how common true power fantasies are in gaming. If they aren’t very common, then this likely isn’t all that big a problem. From there, the video moves on to talk about power fantasies generally in the context of combat and killing people, and thus essentially carves out the FPS genre specifically, and thus makes it unclear whether or not RPGs, in general, count. It also seems to treat combat as being, in their own words, “rampaging”, which in and of itself isn’t a big theme in most games, which at least try to give you a self-defense motive to kill those enemies. The big example used is of Uncharted, a game that I have not played, asserting that the protagonist is killing lots and lots of people just to get to the treasure at the end. Even if that is true for Uncharted, how common is that in gaming in general?

And when we consider whether what they are suggesting is going to ruin the power fantasy experience, we need to know what that experience is and what goal they are really pursuing, which the video never really talks about. Sure, they might have an entire half-hour video sussing all of that out — I’m not a regular viewer of theirs — but we really needed more than “It makes you feel powerful!” for a topic this complex. So, my general definition of power fantasy is going to be someone doing something that makes them feel strong or skilled or competent in a way that they don’t feel in every day life. Thus, simply being powerful and killing things may or may not be a power fantasy, as some players might prefer feeling like their charismatic, competent, skilled, or even important in a way that they aren’t in their real-lives. To their credit, the video does hint at this in their brief definition of power fantasy, but they focus on overall strength for the entire rest of the video, and I think it is important to note that a power fantasy may merely be competence, not overwhelming power. Thus, for example, someone might get a power fantasy out of a dating sim because the game makes them feel like they can attract members of the appropriate sex, whereas in real life they don’t have anywhere near that success. They also might get a power fantasy out of playing Batman not because of the bodies he leaves behind, but instead because he is someone who is always prepared for any situation, whereas in real life they at least feel like they aren’t. And so on and so forth. Focusing on questions of whether things are right doesn’t really make sense for those sorts of situations, where either the morals are clear or there isn’t really a moral question involved.

And on top of that, it’s also clear that the same game — even one that they think is a pure power fantasy — might be played by different people for different reasons. Someone might play Uncharted, say, because they want that purported power fantasy. Someone else might want to experience the story. Someone else might enjoy the gameplay. So even the most power fantasy game may well draw players who aren’t really interested in following the power fantasy, who have to be taken into account when you do these sorts of things.

And this leads to their last great vagueness: they don’t really say what they mean when they want the game to stop for self-examination and ask the player, presumably, if what they’re doing is right. Sure, they have some hypotheticals, but none of them would, in general, work in a game without being a literal immersion breaking record scratch, to use the metaphor they themselves use in the video. Presumably, we don’t want it to be the game stepping that far outside of itself to make this point, so it’ll have to be integrated into the game somehow. They give examples of some games that have tried … but I haven’t played any of them and so have no idea what they mean, and they don’t even give one real example.

So, let’s talk about the problem with this, which starts from the fact that presumably this, in general, isn’t going to be strictly a story point and is going to be something aimed at the player, or at least that they want the player to think about along with the player’s character. This is problematic because of the nature of games, where the game sets up the rules of the game and the player has to accept those strictures in order to play the game. Those strictures can be strict or they can be loose, but in general the game sets up the structure and lets us in on the assumptions it wants us to make, and then if we want to play the game for whatever reason we have to accept those strictures and assumptions and, ultimately, that world. If you want to play the open world Grand Theft Auto games, for example, you have to accept that your character is, at the very least, going to be a shady character and is going to have to commit some crimes during the game, even if all you want to do is follow the story, or do the open world activities.

So if a game sets up a world where to play the game we have to do certain things or, at least, are very strongly encouraged to do certain things, and then stops the game to ask us, the player, if what we’re doing is right, no matter why we’re playing the game we are likely to exclaim “This is what you told me I had to do to play the game!”. If we want to play the game, we have to accept its rules, and if its rules said that we had to do certain things to advance in the game, it’s not particularly fair for the game to them ask us if what we are doing is in some sense right. As an example, in the Persona games starting from Persona 3 you can romance various people and enter into, at the end of their Social Link, a relationship. You can do this with more than one person, essentially entering into what is presented as a dedicated relationship and have more than one formal girlfriend at a time. In Persona 4 and Persona 5, however, if you do that there will be consequences when they find out about it. Persona 4’s involves you having to essentially reject all but one of them for Valentine’s Day, with them clearly heartbroken over it, and you have to do it to their face, which can be wrenching. This would be a nice, in-game example of the game asking you, the player, through the character, if what you did was right. (Interestingly, the Persona 5 version is less dark given that Persona 5 was a darker game than Persona 4). But in Persona 4 and Persona 5 you were allowed when finishing the S-links with the girls to choose whether the relationship was friends or boyfriend/girlfriend, and you got pretty much all of the benefits of the S-link whether you chose friend or girlfriend. Thus, at the end of the day you, the player, made the decision to pursue a relationship with more than one girl, and so it’s fair for the game to call you out for that choice.

However, you don’t have that choice in Persona 3. If you max out the S-link with a girl, you are entering into a relationship with them, and you want to max out S-links so that you can fuse powerful Personas. Thus, the game doesn’t give you the choice of friends or not and sets up the game that you’d be greatly impaired if you don’t max out S-links with more than one girl. If Persona 3 had done the strong call outs of this that we see in Persona 4 and Persona 5, players would, rightly, feel that they were being called out for doing something that the game essentially made them do, which is not going to seem at all fair. This is going to cause hard feelings towards the game and any point that the game tried to make doing that would be lost.

This seems to be a common reaction to Spec Ops: The Line, which tried to subvert the FPS genre this way. While a number of people — Shamus Young included — really liked the subversion, and while I suspect that it’s the sort of thing that they’d like to see in games, many people seemed to feel that the game was chiding them for doing the things that the game made them do in order to keep playing. What were they supposed to do, quite playing? So they felt — in my opinion, reasonably — that the game deliberately set up the game to make them think that it was following the standard FPS tropes and assumptions, gave no or little indication that they should or could do something else, and then chided them for accepting the game as they presented it to them. The risk of asking the player if what they are doing is right is precisely this sort of reaction: why are you asking me if what you made me do to play the game is right? I’m playing a game here, I’m following your rules, and so if there’s any right or wrong here you probably should have thought of that before you put those mechanisms into the game. Especially since for many players — even those interested in a power fantasy — the things you are questioning are nothing more than the things they have to put up with in order to get to the parts of the game that they actually are interested in.

They make a comment later about it being a good thing to do even if the answer is “Yes”, by there being a sufficient justification, which leads to the second problem with this: if you are asking the player this question, they are the only ones who can answer it. The game can’t answer it for them. Thus, you need to be prepared for them to answer “No” as well as to answer “Yes”. If they answer “No”, what options do they have? Is their only option to stop playing the game? That’s not really what you wanted. But the game can’t assume that they’ll answer “No” either. What do you do? If this is a story point, then you’re more likely to be able to get away with answering it for the character — although that can be risky as well if the player doesn’t feel their character would agree — but if you are asking the player this and want them to think hard about it and answer it you have to be prepared for their answer, and have the game react accordingly. That’s not easy to do, but if you don’t do it you will get players who simply quit the game because it assumes the answer they didn’t give.

So it’s not really fragility that’s the issue here. It’s that doing stuff like this is really hard to pull of without ruining the game for the player. Some will be bitter that the game is asking them to self-reflect on things that it made them to to play the game. Some will be bitter that the game assumes an answer that they didn’t give to that question. Story players will be annoyed that this is aimed at the player and not the character, and that it takes time out from the story to deliver this pointless message. Gameplay players will be annoyed that this message is taking them out of playing the game, and they weren’t even paying attention at all to the things it’s aiming at, since, for example, you could have replaced all the people with target dummies and they still would have played it because the gameplay would have been the same. Even those interested in a power fantasy might complain that the killing isn’t the sort of power that they’re interested in, and asking whether or not that’s right is again asking them to self-examine over something that they were only doing to get to the good parts.

It seems to me that the video presents power fantasies as being more common than they are, and doesn’t get why that sort of self-examination can cause issues for all players, no matter why they’re playing the game. So, yes, it can be an issue, and it’s not just “fragility” that’s the issue there.

First Thoughts on Cheers …

October 2, 2017

So, the next half-hour series that I’ve decided to watch is Cheers, which I picked up for a reasonable price assuming that I watched through the entire series at least once. I’m at the beginning of Season 3, and so far I can say that it’s … okay.

As a show, it sometimes has some humour that works, and the characters are — or at least can be — interesting at times. The show is good in that it sets up character and plot points as throw-aways in some episodes that end up paying off later. Unfortunately, many of those plot and character points aren’t all that interesting, and since the previous points were throw-aways it can be hard to remember that they happened when they come up, a problem that would be made worse if you were only watching once a week instead of about a season a week like I do. In essence, it seems like it was in at the beginning of using continuity in shows and even in comedies to make a better show, but later shows have done a much better job incorporating that than it did, so it looks a little hollow today, like an attempt to do things like that but a refusal to commit to doing that. Which, to be fair, is indeed probably what it was.

The show’s main premise is the introduction of the intellectual, cultured and upper-class Diane Chambers into the working-class bar of Cheers, and the clash that produces. This leads to a lot of banter between her and Carla and Sam, and a little with the other patrons, although most of them are more pleasantly disposed towards her than Carla and Sam at least pretend to be. These snarky and sniping interactions — which, of course, persist even when Sam and Diane are dating — work best when Diane gives as good as she gets, which she starts doing after only a couple of episodes, otherwise it can feel like everyone is ganging up on her. And even then Carla’s sniping is so constant that it is often distracting, and so you just want her to shut up and let the episode get one with … whatever it is that it is supposed to be doing.

This is helped along by my finding Diane to be the most sympathetic character in the show, which is a big problem since the reason for that is that Diane seems to be the only character who actually cares about other people and tries to do the right thing most of the time, and is often opposed by the other characters in that. This ends up giving the impression that Diane is actually moral and the others are amoral at best and immoral at worst. Diane, then, is often seen as trying to care about and reach out to the other characters with them at best taking advantage of that and at worst insulting her for that. As an example, at one point Sam forces Diane and Carla to sit together to try to learn to get along, and Carla spins a tale about Sam being the father of one of her children, and Diane is deeply moved and sympathetic and tries to help … and Carla laughs at her behind her back that she believed that story. How can anyone not feel for Diane and be annoyed or even angry at Carla for that?

Ultimately, what the show ends up doing is setting up a divide where Diane is the good and moral person and the rest of the bar are unapologetically immoral much of the time. Sam is set up as her “different worlds” love interest, a womanizer who nevertheless “falls in love” with Diane. If you are going to do that, generally you set the womanizer up as someone who is willing to manipulate women into having sex with them, but at least won’t take advantage of the main heroine when she is vulnerable, so in at least some instances putting feelings over sex. Sam, in the first season, knowingly is at least willing to take advantage of Diane when she is emotionally vulnerable, and while they hint that it’s because he knows of no other way to deal with women that is never brought up again and, in general, is proven false with Carla. As for Carla herself, she has a small subplot where she ends up getting seduced by her ex-husband who gets her pregnant again so she sets out to seduce a socially awkward bar patron and then tries to convince him that he is actually the father of her child, which he does believe at first. She shows no remorse over this and refuses to even tell him until Diane browbeats her into it. When the guy is, understandably, upset and refuses to marry her — remember, they only had a one-night stand and he was only going to marry her because of the child — at which point Sam tries to convince him to marry her anyway for some reason, even going so far as to insist that if the guy doesn’t marry her, Sam will … which Sam clearly never meant to do, since the guy does walk out and he is quite reluctant to do so, even before she lets him off the hook.

How can you consider any of these actions — and therefore these characters — moral?

The problem is that this breaks down the traditional “upper crust vs working class” divide down along moral lines. Diane is our first and most prominent representative of that class, and she seems to genuinely care about other people and generally acts morally all the time, while the representatives of the working class are generally seem as petty and self-interested/self-centered, not willing to think about how their actions will affect other people and, in general, not caring about that either. Many episodes end up with Diane trying to browbeat them into caring about such things. When Coach’s friend dies and Coach finds out — from Sam — that he had slept with Coach’s wife, and at the memorial when all of his other friends confessed the same thing, even though Coach makes an impassioned speech about forgiving failings he gets swept up in the fervor of burning the person’s standie in effigy, and it is Diane singing “Amazing Grace” that calms everyone down at the end. In another incident, Norm is faced with a woman client who is attracted to him soon after reconciling with his wife, and the entire bar pretty much tries to shame him into going for it … except for Diane, who discourages it and is in fact quite disappointed when it looks like Norm was going to go for it. Even on a practical level, why would Norm do that soon after reconciling with his wife and being happier when he was back with her? If this had been done while they were separated, Diane’s objections would have been ridiculous, but it happening soon after they reconciled makes the temptation seem ridiculous. So what we end up with is a false divide between the upper-crust and the working class where the working class ends up on the immoral side, and this is consistently done throughout the first couple of seasons. The upper-crust, represented by Diane, is moral, while the working class is not.

The thing is, the “upper crust vs working class” conflict only really works when their various sensibilities are different, and it isn’t clear which one is inherently better than the other. In general, the working class tend towards the practical, the immediate, the short-term, and the in-group, while the upper-crust tends towards the abstract and the expansive. If the characters are moral, the working class tends towards helping out and supporting their friends in practical ways without worrying about any other main principle than “That’s my friend” while the upper-crust tends towards general principles. The episode where the bar patrons were worried about the bar drawing in more gay people and so becoming a gay bar while Diane was upset at the discrimination is actually not an unreasonable conflict, at least in terms of appealing to the stereotypes of working class vs upper crust. But most of the conflicts — including that one — are only superficially at best about that sort of moral divide, most often coming across as the working class being morally wrong and Diane — and by extension, the upper crust — being morally right. Sure, moral sensibilities have changed but did anyone ever think that sleeping with another woman right after reconciling with your wife or tricking someone into marriage by deliberating seducing them and deceiving them into thinking that your child by another man was theirs morally right? For the most part, pretty much all of these are at least cases where by precedent we should be inclined towards thinking that the people on the working class side are taking the morally wrong side, and they’d need to do much more to make this more morally complicated to avoid that distinction.

When they do create that divide, things work. But even here Diane is presented as more reasonable than they are. In one episode, Diane wants to watch an opera and when the others don’t want to watch it, harangues them over her giving their things a chance but them not giving hers a chance, and they try for about two seconds and switch back. Sure, Diane was an idiot to suggest the entire multi-hour Ring of the Nibelung opera, but they could have at least let her watch it since the framing was that she really wanted to watch it because it was a unique experience. While having one character always being in the right could make you really hate that character, here I, at least, end up liking her to the detriment of the others because she demonstrates good qualities and seems to be always right, and always right in a way that aligns with her character as presented and the others are wrong in a way that aligns with their characters as presented. And that makes me dislike the working class characters.

I’m also not that interested in the relationship between Sam and Diane. I found the case where they get together and then break up at the end of the season problematic, mostly because they need to bring Diane back to the show and to do that they have Sam return to the bottle, which I thought was a bit out of character for him, given how long he had been off the bottle, and that he didn’t need to get drunk to do the womanizing that he had fallen back into. But the problem had to be big enough to convince Diane to come back to a place that she refused to come back to, and so he had to be drunk and, to make that dramatic, she had to have a nervous breakdown. They just didn’t seem that close to me, and Diane didn’t have that problem when her fiance left her without a word leaving her alone and without a job. So it came across as a way to break them up dramatically and then get them back together, which didn’t really work for me.

That being said, the show is still okay. I’ll probably get through it, but I don’t like it as much as I liked “Sabrina the Teenage Witch”.

Post Transformers: The Movie World

September 18, 2017

So, what struck me about the Transformers cartoon post-“The Movie” is how unlike pretty much every other series that I’ve watched — which to be fair is pretty much G1 and Beast Wars — the most interesting and driving personal conflict in the series wasn’t Galvatron vs Rodimus Prime. For the most part, any real conflict or rivalry they had was shallowly done, if at all, and not a major factor in the series. On the other hand, the conflict between Cyclonus and Ultra Magnus got more direct play and was the more interesting conflict. How did this happen?

First, Galvatron in that cartoon was absolutely insane, which was noted by the characters on numerous occasions. He didn’t have the megalomania and overall evil of, say, G1 Megatron or Beast Wars Megatron, with them being evil and having mental tics but being, overall, competent and manipulative villains. While both had a temper and definitely didn’t brook betrayal or treachery — at least against them — and often went out of their way to repay perceived or real slights, they in general were still competent and not as much of a danger to their own side as they were to the enemy. Far too often, Galvatron’s competence vanished leaving him with only power to recommend him, power that he sometimes used against his own allies in his zeal to destroy the Autobots, as was noted in “Webworld”, the episode where Cyclonus ends up having him committed in an attempt to restore his sanity so that he can more effectively lead the Decepticons. Overall, this led to a general overarching impression and plot where we have the Decepticon lieutenants — particularly Cyclonus — having to work with and work around an unstable Galvatron, made all the worse for Cyclonus because he was the one who set out to recover Galvatron, seeing him as the last hope the Decepticons had after their defeat by the Autobots. Having to admit that his revered leader wasn’t really helping in “Webworld” struck deep at him and brought home to the audience just how serious Galvatron’s insanity really was.

And this can be an interesting line to take, focusing on the Decepticons reacting to an unstable leader who nevertheless is powerful enough that he can’t just be done away with and who is enough of a figurehead that the Decepticons will automatically rally to him for the most part, whereas without him the Decepticons might fall back into fighting amongst themselves again. The problem is that this sort of storyline tends to shift the focus a lot to Cyclonus, and away from Galvatron as leader. But then maybe they could have set up a conflict between Cyclonus and Rodimus Prime, but that didn’t work for two reasons.

First, Rodimus Prime wasn’t all that impressive as Autobot leader. They deliberately set him up as the inexperienced and reluctant leader, not someone who had sought it out and someone who was more impulsive than a good leader should be. And, again, this could work. But it works best against a strong Decepticon leader, one who can try to manipulate those impulsive tendencies and doubts and force Rodimus to overcome them to oppose him, like Beast Wars Megatron. Galvatron is not that sort of Decepticon leader, and Cyclonus is in general too Lawful to pursue those courses most of the time as well. So with nothing to play off of Rodimus comes across as an ineffective leader, not as a worthy leader growing into the role. Second, Rodimus doesn’t have anything that lets us see him as the natural or superior Autobot leader. He is handed the leadership for being the “Chosen One”, but aside from that he’s singularly unimpressive as leader. He doesn’t have Optimus Prime’s or Optimus Primal’s inherent leadership ability and charisma. He doesn’t embody the Autobot principles like Optimus Prime did (sometimes not seeing to care about making peace and peace conferences, for example). He’s not as physically impressive as Optimus Prime and Optimus Primal were relative to the other characters; Ultra Magnus and Springer, for example, seem more overall physically impressive. He’s not regarded as the most skilled fighter on his team, like Optimus Prime and Optimus Primal were; Grimlock and Ultra Magnus are likely better fighters. He doesn’t even have a unique and impressive weapon or abilities like Optimus Prime — his laser rifle — and Optimus Primal — flight — had. So outside of the Matrix choosing him for some reason, we have no idea why he should be leader.

Second, the better counterpart to Cyclonus is clearly Ultra Magnus. As was lampshaded in one episode, Cyclonus and Ultra Magnus are mirror images of each other. Alignment-wise, we have Lawful Evil and Lawful Good. Both of them are dedicated to their leaders … or, at least, Ultra Magnus was to Optimus Prime, although he can be a bit frustrated by Rodimus Prime at times. And, heck, both of them are frustrated by and often have to work around the leadership failings of their leaders. However, neither of them have any interest in leading themselves. The conflict between them and the “Enemy Mine” situations they sometimes enter into is indeed a good conflict between similar yet strikingly different characters. Their conflict is interesting, and any attempt to slide that over to Rodimus would only create a conflict that was less interesting by contrast.

So, what we have is a series where both leaders aren’t the sorts of characters that can carry the main conflict of the series or being the main focus of the series, while their lieutenants in general were. It’s no wonder that, at least to me, some of the more interesting episodes are the ones that focus on Cyclonus and Ultra Magnus and their conflicts with each other, and not on Galvatron and Rodimus Prime.

Hugo Award Assessment: Final Thoughts

January 16, 2017

So, my final thoughts on the 2016 Hugo Award Best Novel nominees:

If this is the best science fiction and fantasy have to offer, then I weep for science fiction and fantasy. The works here were “Meh” at best, and utter crap at worst. I find much less flawed and even philosophically deeper works in the X-Wing series, and it’s not even really trying to do that. Even worse, in order to keep my mind uncluttered I refused to read any actual science fiction and fantasy novels, and since reading is my major pastime I ended up reading graphic novels and, most importantly, the “Order of the Stick” books, and found that that stick-figure comic had better characterization, plots, and generally was more entertaining than any of the Hugo Award nominees. To rub salt in the wound, I read the “Order of the Stick” books twice while reading these works, and can’t think of a book here that I would ever read again. Science fiction and fantasy is in dire straits, it seems to me.

Another thing I noticed in every work is the focus on super-competent and generally female protagonists, being able to do what no one else things wise or even possible. Gwen in “The Aeronaut’s Windlass”, all of the “Seven Eves” in “Seveneves”, Breq in “Ancillary Mercy”, the main protagonist in “Uprooted” … all of them are hyper-competent and almost never fail due to their own fault. I had thought for a while that “The Fifth Season” would avoid that, but even though Syenite isn’t as powerful as Alabaster, even in those sections she does almost everything of importance and never fails, and even the trans character (male to female) is overly impressive in a number of ways. Jemisin only avoids doing this outright because she really fails to establish anything about any of the characters beyond soundbites, which leaves little room for them to be overly impressive.

Now, people may reply that male protagonists were always that hyper-competent, and it’s just that when it’s women that I’m objecting. To counter that, let me present characters from the Amber series and from David Eddings’ “Elenium” and “Tamuli”, all of which are among my favourite works. Corwin in the first Amber series starts off with amnesia and has to trick others into helping him, and relies on Random and Deirdre to fill him in, protect him, and get him to the castle. In the first book, he joins with another sibling to take the throne of Amber, and fails miserably. Later, it is implied that he was actually manipulated by his sibling. He is blinded, and recovers his sight, not because of some super-special ability, but because he is arguably better at doing what all of his family can do … which only means that he does it faster, not that they wouldn’t recover in the same way. And, when his sight recovers, it’s not portrayed as this huge victory, but instead as a spur for him to escape because if he doesn’t he’ll be blinded again. As he escapes, he curses Eric … and opens the way for the forces of Chaos to attack Amber. He returns in the second book to take the throne, and wins because of unique weaponry … that he discovered not because he was some sort of great chemist, but instead purely by accident. For the rest of the series, he investigates various things, almost gets killed on a number of occasions, and arguably screws everything up in trying to save it. He learns humility and decides that maybe his feud with Eric — and the fight over the throne — wasn’t worth it, and while he meets his son, at the end of it all he wins neither the fair maiden nor the throne, and loses his most beloved sister … and is mostly content with that.

In Eddings, the most powerful character is … the secondary female character Sephrenia. And while she is very wise and experienced and very powerful in magic, she’s pretty vulnerable to weapons, and so has to be protected a lot of the time. Thus, she fits neatly into the mentor/wise advisor role. Sparhawk, the main character, is important because he has a destiny and is generally a jack-of-all-trades: he can fight and use magic, but isn’t necessarily the best at any of them. And at the end, when he gains ultimate power, he gives it up because he doesn’t like the person he becomes while using it … and only uses that ultimate power to fight the other ultimate power.

Good heroes need weakness and flaws to exploit. They need to struggle and fail, and overcome it all in the end. Modern science fiction and fantasy — at least in these Hugo nominees — seem to attempt to take away the struggle … but heroes who never struggle are uninteresting to us, and plots featuring them are boring. “Uprooted”, “Seveneves” and “Ancillary Mercy” are prime examples of how uber-competent protagonists kill any drama in the plot.

Okay, all that aside, here are my picks, starting from the worst and working my way up. If you’ve read my commentaries, the work at the bottom of the list will not surprise you, but the book at the top might:

5) Seveneves: This work is just terrible in every way imaginable. It’s only interesting at all as hard sci-fi and doesn’t even do that right. This is the only work that I’d even consider “No Awarding”.

Hugo Award standings: 4th.
Vox Day’s standing: 2nd.

4) The Fifth Season: While last place (and first place) were pretty much clear for me, 2 – 4 was a tight race. For the longest time, I had this in third, but the primary job of the first book in a series is to make us want to read the next books in the series, and it’s clear that the way Jemisin chose to do that falls completely flat due to a lack of development. It fails at its main goal, and isn’t really good at doing anything else either.

Hugo Award standings: 1st.
Vox Day’s standing: No Award.

3) Ancillary Mercy: For all of the time that this languished in fourth place, I was torn over it … and am still torn over putting it third. The problem is that most of the problems with this work are not the fault of it, but are instead the fault of the other works in the series. If it had tried valiantly to save the series and failed, I would have been more charitable, but at the end of the day, it didn’t.

Hugo Award standings: 3rd.
Vox Day standing: No Award.

2) Uprooted: While it is still terribly flawed, boring, and suffering from an utter lack of drama due to an overly powerful protagonist, it manages to come in second by being pretty much a standard if lackluster fantasy work. One ought not be proud of coming in second because the work wasn’t specifically horribly flawed.

Hugo Award standings: 2nd.
Vox Day standing: 1st.

1) The Aeronaut’s Windlass: The work is boring at times and relies heavily on us feeling an emotional connection to people, places and things that it doesn’t do the legwork to ensure that we do develop that emotional connection. But … it actually has a plot and some interesting characters, which is enough to get top spot. Again, that’s not really something to be proud of; I would think that all authors would want to achieve something more than “well, there’s a bit of a plot and characters there, so you win!”.

Hugo Award standings: 5th.
Vox Day standing: 3rd.

There you have it. I was starting to read “The Mote in God’s Eye” (which so far was “Okay”), but I now think that I need to cleanse my palate, and go read something that I actually like. And I’m going to try to sell all of the Hugo Award nominees if I can, because I will never read any of them again.

Hugo Award Assessment: The Fifth Season

January 9, 2017

“The Fifth Season” is the last of the Hugo Award nominees, which means that it’s the one that won. That being said, it’s not a particularly good book.

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Hugo Award Assessment: Uprooted

January 2, 2017

I swear I didn’t realize this until after I had finished reading “Uprooted” by Naomi Novik.

A while ago, I wrote a post about the female author sweep of the Nebulas, and explicitly called out one of those interviewed for not understanding science fiction and fantasy because she insisted that she wanted to do something different, an alternative narrative that wasn’t as revenge driven, when there was, indeed, tons of science fiction and fantasy that had ignored revenge narratives and/or subverted them … like her very examples, in fact. This actually becomes ironic because I will sum up “Uprooted” this way:

The best thing you can say about it is that it’s a pretty much standard fantasy narrative, bringing nothing new to the genre and sticking pretty close to the standard or expected formula.

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Notes on “Ancillary Trilogy”

December 26, 2016

“Ancillary Justice”:

First Reading: 100 pages in (after leader arrives in the flashback):

– Let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way: the use of “she” as the third person personal pronoun. I don’t really see the point of it. It does require some mental gymnastics — which I avoid most of the time — to translate it all out, especially when you get phrases like “she was definitely male”. So it’s a bit of a burden on the reader. If you put a burden on the reader, you have to make sure it pays off, or else you risk them giving up on the work or disliking it for the extra work they have to do. The problem is that I don’t see what using “she” actually does so far. If Leckie wanted to reverse the typical presumption of the male personal pronoun, then a) someone’s almost certainly already done that and b) that doesn’t come across because we don’t use the male personal pronoun when referring to a specific person. So since it does more than that, it’s not a good way of presenting another viewpoint. Additionally, given the circumstances, using Shale’s “it” would work better: the AI would be thought of and referred to as a thing, and so by it, and yet that’s how the consciousness would have learned to refer to persons. This then would play into the struggles to pretend to be or act human, as it would refer to people as if they were things, but then people would be genuinely offended by that. Referring to them by the wrong gendered pronoun isn’t anywhere near as off-putting. And doing this would avoid the “she was clearly male” lines.

Now, what I find myself doing here is assuming that every character is female, and so the point might be to get people doing just that, and so again challenging the male presumption. However, an easier way to do that would have been to simply make all the characters female, especially if specific gender doesn’t make a difference (and so far it doesn’t seem to). So this is a bit of an awkward structure that doesn’t seem likely to have a big payoff in the series. But maybe it will later.

– The story is somewhat interesting, but the backstory sections are so long and detailed compared to the present day details that so far the present day seems like an aside to that story … and it isn’t clear yet how the two are actually related. So, so far, they don’t seem to be. And being 100 pages in should mean that I have a better idea why the two stories matter to each other.

– So far, though, the book is a solid “Meh”.

Second reading: 200 pages in (after Severeiden)

– It might be just my imagination, but it seems to me that the nastiest characters are all eventually identified as male …

– The use of “she” still gets confusing — especially when Leckie mixes in people using “proper” gendered pronouns — and doesn’t seem to fit the civilization. How is it that their genderless pronoun came to be what we would consider the female one? This would be an interesting exploration that is, so far, completely ignored.

– World building is lax. 200 pages into the first book, I should understand more about the culture that’s driving the plot events than I do. Butcher’s book did this so much better (and I still found it a bit lacking).

– Events drag.

– Severeiden seems to be a pointless addition. The scenes with that character were short, the character didn’t contribute to much if anything in them, and ending it here seems to be an attempt at character building that doesn’t build character. Given that these scenes were also the least interesting of the two and featured the least interesting secondary characters, it would have been better to just document the journey to Strigen and have the conversations there.

– Awn is an interesting character, but the scenes after the massacre drag.

– Still in the “Meh” category, which is a boon after “Seveneves”.

Third Reading: Up to Chapter 20.

– I still think it would have been better to have done the race like the Asari, all female, using only artificial means for reproduction. Some sort of disease that wiped out all the men could demand it and make sense of the use of the female pronoun, plus having no idea of what identifiers identified gender.

– There are interesting scenes and some action, but it drags and the conversations meander. If we cared more, we might sit through the ruminations, but as it is the conversations definitely seem to meander too much.

– The risk with Seivarden is that making a character that the protagonist hates might cause us to hate them, too … and since Seivarden is an important cog in this part, that might mean disliking this part.

– I’m 300 pages in … has anything happened yet? Sure, it’s the first book in a trilogy, but it’s building up too quickly to carry this one story the entire trilogy, and yet nothing has HAPPENED in this story.

Fourth Reading: End “Ancillary Justice”

– From reading this and reading the blurbs for the last two … ah, this is THAT kind of trilogy, where we follow the adventures of one character in a new world with its own problems. Given that … the book fails. Breq is an interesting enough character, but the book neither builds the characters or world enough to serve as a sufficient introduction to the world. Again, we are left wondering why all of this matters and is important. The structure of it itself is confusing, and while it might be meant to be Breq itself doesn’t really seem to be. Which side are we supposed to be cheering for? Breq hates them all, and yet is still sucked into being a captain to make things better? Really? Seivarden moves from pathetic to suddenly exceptionally competent, just in time to drive those plot points.

– The plot points and character points often get buried under what seeming is supposed to be clever banter, or internal ruminations. But the banter is generally not clever because it doesn’t really GO anywhere. It meanders too much to work as exposition but doesn’t have the consequences to work as verbal fencing.

– Overall: As the first book in a trilogy, it doesn’t really work because it doesn’t leave an interesting enough conflict to drive us to read the next book in the series. It’s all driven by wanting to read more of the series itself and more about that character, which is hampered by the lack of interesting plot or character conflicts and the idiosyncratic “she” pronouns; it’s harder for me to work through the book because I either treat all characters as women or have to consciously remind myself who’s who, but the characters and plots and world aren’t interesting enough to make me want to do that extra work. As a standalone work, it’s a “Meh”, as the plot and the resolution to it are too quick, and the fact that the main character is interesting doesn’t overcome that.

“Ancillary Sword”

First Reading: 100 pages in

– Why is this book Ancillary Sword and the next one Ancillary Mercy when in this one the main character captains a Mercy? Progressing the character from a Justice to a Mercy and finally to a Sword makes sense and reflects planning, and then the titles reflecting that would give us a nice sense of that progression.

– Why is Breq still alive? The leader doesn’t trust Breq at all, Breq is willfully defiant, and cannot be trusted at all to do what the leader wants. Surely there’s a way to get through that armour, even if by surprise or with poison. Or blowing the entire ship out of space, which the leader is certainly ruthless enough to do. What does Breq bring to the table that makes them so valuable, other than being the viewpoint character?

– Breq is WAY too competent for this, defusing almost everything interesting with knowledge or skills or whatever. For example, Breq foils the leader’s insertion plan by seemingly knowing about it from the start. More time working out the puzzle would have made the resolution more entertaining, but instead it’s just a quick “Oh, rip the implants out and we’re done”, and everything is mostly settled. One of the more interesting plots is resolved in about 20 pages. That’s … not good.

– Is it Leckie’s intent that I find it so easy to ignore any thoughts of presentation and real physical gender and just picture all of the characters as female, given the pronoun? The bad thing about that is that when she tries to talk about presentation or real physical gender I get annoyed, both because I don’t care and second because it drags me out of the story for a bit while I briefly wonder if I should care and adjust my mental model. Since it almost never DOES matter, I’m getting better and better at simply ignoring those parts and getting back into the work. That doesn’t seem like an attitude that justifies Leckie’s move to deliberately do it … and leaves me thinking that having all of the main citizens BE all female would have been so much better than what she’s doing here.

Second Reading: After translator killed

– Leckie sets up the translator in a brief scene before killing her. This is a constant flaw in this series, as things happen WAY too quickly to be interesting.

– The pacing is relatively good; the book moves quickly so you’re never really bored reading things. However, nothing really happens, so we have a lot of conversations that are detailed and often interminable that don’t work for either plot advancement, character development, or verbal fencing.

– This might have worked better as a political work than as … whatever this is. At least then all the conversations could be reworked and cast as verbal fencing and political maneuvering, which we don’t really have here.

Third Reading: After the greenhouse goes boom

– Leckie tries to add in romantic and sexual relationships here. This is both awkward given her pronouning and is, in fact, still mostly irrelevant, so it gets in the way of the story.

– About the only thing of interest learned here is the overall corruption of at least the system, and perhaps of the entire empire … but it would have been better to show that in the earlier books instead of focusing so much on the protagonist’s backstory. Since we’ll be with this protagonist for the entire series, certain aspects of the history could have been brought out later.

– It might pay off later, but so far the translator’s death seems to be nothing more than an excuse to get them down to the planet.

– Because the culture hasn’t been established yet, all of the mourning requirements seem like things pulled out to allow Leckie to get the main character into the situations she needs her to be in. As I’m over half-way through the series, this is not the time to try to introduce stuff like that.

– The dishes thing was a cute aside at first. At this point, it’s just WAY overdone.

– It’s interesting that I considered Rhegaud (the abuser) to be male. I’m not sure if Leckie said that or if I’ve been so conditioned to think of abusers as male and the abused as female. If Leckie had made a big deal of this and inverted it — the abused is biologically male and the abuser is biologically female — then that whole pronoun thing might have paid off. It might still be the case — I can’t remember what she said and am not going to look back to look it up — but it needed to be highlighted more to allow for a revelation. But the structure of the book itself doesn’t allow for it.

Fourth Reading: End.

– The supports breaking between the Garden and Undergarden was WAY too convenient. Just because you set something up and make references to it doesn’t mean that it can’t be seen as being too convenient, especially if it works to the advantage of the protagonist (working against them just gets classified as “Everything always happens at the worst possible times). And here it meant that Station wouldn’t hesitate to intervene and wouldn’t worry about risking the life of the hostage.

– So, about page 200 – 220 or so, another ship was introduced with another Fleet Captain, which I recall wanted to take over command. What happened with that?

– The resolution of the bombing and the Captain’s plan and ring again was too quick to matter.

– Breq, the protagonist, is too competent for good drama. Conspiracies don’t work because she figures them out too quickly and is hardly ever if ever surprised, and she somehow always knows everything before anyone else does, even if it relies on having information that we are not really given. As a first-person work, it would be better if she struggled a bit with this. But as she’s so competent every move is met by “I knew that, and I know what I’ll do next, and everyone will do what I want and what I expect.” This gets very boring.

– I’m getting sick of this series.

Ancillary Mercy:

Pre-book thoughts: The final book in a trilogy has to wrap up all the loose ends. But I’m not sure there ARE any really interesting loose ends that NEED to be tied up. Sure, the ancillary civil war might be one, but if it stayed in a detente that would be reasonable; do we REALLY expect Breq to be able to settle all of that? I guess the Praesger issue might be one, but they’ve been an aside for two books now, and so only rate as a complication that we might not have needed. Breq has seemingly resolved relations with Awn’s sister here, so that’s gone away, and neither Seivarden’s nor Tsarwart’s stories are interesting enough for us to care about their resolutions. And there’s not much of an arc to complete with Breq either, so her going on as before would work as well. I think the first two books did not really do much to help the last one turn out well … and, as I said, as I’m starting to get sick of the series because of the second book they might have actually very much hurt it.

First Reading: 100 pages in

– A third of the way through the last book, and it seems like Leckie is still stage setting. All of that should have been done by now.

– Leckie lampshades Breq always being right, but dismisses it. Lampshading something does not make it go away.

– Leckie reminds us of the other Fleet Captain only to do nothing about it in the first third of the book.

– The big issue here is that everything has been a background event in the previous two novels. The Civil War has been in the background, the Undergarden has been in the background, the Praesger have been in the background, Serivarden has been in the background, Breq has been in the background, the ship AIs have been in the background, and so on and so forth. So up to this point, all this book can do is talk about background events that we don’t really care about. But this is a clear flaw in the work because things that could be serious are treated dismissively. The new Translator shows up early in the book but only acts strangely up until now. The other palace falls, ships might arrive from the “other” leader … and when they arrive Breq merely comments to keep an eye on them and that she’ll be back in a couple of days. Leckie makes a big deal of the Ship in the Ghost Gate … but then the reaction to finding one of those ancillaries is “Give it a job”. We don’t care about Seivarden’s arc and relationships because it hasn’t been brought up much in the other books. And Leckie can’t get us to care about the kef recovery because most of the time it’s irrelevant and Leckie only brings it up when she wants to talk about Seivarden having “emotional turmoil” that requires medication. We don’t care about Tiswart’s issues because, again, they’ve only been background. This is a prime example of a work that seems to want to express ideas but doesn’t want to actually do anything with them, explore them, or make an interesting story out of them.

– Two examples: 1) Leckie talks about how bulky and beautiful Celar is, which could be an attempt to go after “fat shaming” … except that we don’t have any actual context for it, Leckie herself doesn’t focus on it, and so we are unaffected one way or the other. We don’t really know — or care — about how that alien humanity judges beauty. Also, Leckie talks about AI issues at the end here, and about making the Station AI control itself completely … but it is too late to RAISE those issues, and besides there doesn’t seem to be much potential for a pay-off here. If the AIs were presented as being the only rational agents that might be able to take over, rule, and govern, then you’d have the interesting dilemma of releasing them and risking them having a completely different view than humans, and so risk vs reward. But it’s clear that other than caring about their own inhabitants a lot, they aren’t any better than anyone else, not more competent, more caring, more honest, or anything like that. Their short-sightedness makes them unqualified to lead, and they are just too much like the humans to replace them. So bringing it up here adds an idea that can’t be explored properly to an already cluttered set of ideas. Again, expressing ideas but doing nothing with them.

Second Reading: 200 pages in.

– Were we supposed to cheer and be impressed and happy when Seivarden apologized to the other lieutenant? It’s been a sideshow the entire time, an aside, an afterthought. Why should we care?

– Gee, that gun can destroy entire ships! Maybe there’ll be a problem with it being used! That will come up in the last 100 pages! Meh.

– There might have been some drama and excitement around finally confronting the other leader’s forces, but it went way too quickly and then got buried under the internal conversations that went no where and weren’t that interesting.

Third Reading: To end.

– And nothing got resolved at all. Sure, nothing needed to, but it leaves the last book with nothing at all to do.

– Small spaces of dramatic action buried under interminable, pointless conversations.

– The final “resolution” is all the worse from being blind luck — Translator and the other ship would have had to come with her for it to work, but she had to think it up during the shuttle ride — rather than from her exceptional and unbelievable competence … especially since it still required incredible competence for her to pull off the arguments.

– Leckie hinted at the issues with mistreating non-Significant species before, but never explained anything about it. So we have no idea why the Translator would even go along with any of that.

– The Seivarden sequence continues, but again why in the world would we care?

– Overall: the book is very disappointing, but that’s mostly because the rest of the series fails to give it anything of interest to do.

Hugo Award Assessment: Ancillary Mercy

December 19, 2016

The last book in a trilogy has a specific purpose that it must be measured by. The last book in a trilogy needs to wrap up the main plot and character threads in a satisfying way, and so in general it is judged by how well it manages to do that.

“Ancillary Mercy” was betrayed and destroyed by the previous books in the series. They developed absolutely no interesting plot or character threads that in any way required resolution. And a big reason for this is that this entire trilogy is a prime example of a work that simply expresses ideas but fails to develop them.

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