Monday, September 9, 2013

MORALITY



            I recently attended a discussion on Biblical morality.  When the Bible tacitly approves of such things as slavery, genocide and rape, they explained that such things were common in the days when the Bible was written because of the scarceness of land, water, and livestock, etc.

          When I’m arguing with people who say that without a god (and his punishment/reward system) atheists cannot possibly have any morals, I usually respond in two ways. One, that a carrot-and-stick is no basis for morality; if their god took away the threat of Hell, how morally would they behave? Second, that their god condoned a lot of things that we view as immoral today; thus if their unchanging god changed his mind again, and decided that such things were okay, would they blindly obey him?

          Thing is, that second argument may be closer to the truth in real world terms. Global warming may create a lack of land, water and food. I’m not confident that we wouldn’t change our minds and decide that the old evils were good after all.

          Look how easily we shed our own morals on things like unjustified invasions, torture, legal rights and privacy after 9/11. It was okay – because we were the good guys fighting the good fight against, not fellow humans, but bad guys.  

          The old comics and pulp science fiction I read were pretty na├»ve. If anything as disastrous as climate change threatened the world, a coalition of the greatest minds on Earth would have convened to deal with it. Everybody would have survived.

          In the so-called real world, the only plan anyone has for dealing with disaster is the Pentagon’s papers on “resource wars.”

          Climate change is a real threat in more ways than one. We might lose our comfortable style of living, our superpower status and our easy access to oil, habitable land and even water. All the population of the Earth is in the same boat. And all we’re doing is plotting ways to take away what we need from other people!

          I fear worse than resource losses. We could lose our souls.

          The Klingons had it right. “Only a fool fights in a burning house.”

         

         





Monday, December 17, 2012

WHAT MAKES A HEROINE

I was disappointed with reaction from some of the comics and sf fans' base to the film of THE HUNGER GAMES.  I couldn't believe that they wanted to know why Katniss didn't just use her forestry and bow skills to kill everybody else and win.  That she didn't was the whole point of the story.  Just killing and winning - which would have meant taking out Rue and Peeta herself - would have been giving the Capitol what they wanted, a new champion and the continuation of the Games.  She wouldn't have been a heroine at all, and I don't think the books would have sold as phenomenally well as they did.  She made the powers that be do things her way, and that's why she is a heroine.  A hero/ine doesn't just go along for the ride, she shakes up the status quo.

There is a sad trend in popular sf and fantasy to portray violence as the only means of resolving conflicts.  You can see it reflected in shooter video games and action and zombie movies to name a few.  The enemy is faceless and nonhuman so it's ok to kill them.  That's the only way to survive.  Peace is never an option.  You can't negotiate with the Flood or the Heartless or the Darkspawn or the undead.  Even the new STAR TREK movies are about blowing up supervillains; the tv series strove to resolve confrontations peacefully, but that doesn't make good action movies.  Neil Degrasse Tyson said, "If you carry around a hammer, all problems begin to look like nails."

Please note that I am not saying that violent video games or movies cause violence or hate  -  people like Osama bin Laden, Adolph Hitler and Fred Phelps did not grow up playing video games.  But it reflects and reinforces the already existing feeling that our perceived enemies are not like us, fags or ragheads or gooks or Jews or infidels or whatever hate words are being used.  It's a mental state that's been with us since prehistory but it's one that we can survive without.  A while ago the government had a leaked plan for how to survive climate change or the loss of natural fuels, land or water.  It was all about Resource Wars, fighting over them. Nothing about any sharing or cooperation between nations so that everybody lives.  Even the Klingons had a proverb: "Only a fool fights in a burning house." A lot of sf/fantasy from Trek to comic books used to be above that kind of thinking.

And now we have drone weapons that you can kill with impersonally without ever seeing your victims' faces.  Remember how outraged you feel when some sick shooter in Colorado or Connecticut kills innocent men, women and kids?  Happens all the time in places like Pakistan, and we can't understand why they hate us.

Today's heroes are a violent lot.  Superheroes used to have a personal code against killing.  They won as often as not by outsmarting the bad guys - not just by being meaner and harder.  In the scene above Green Lantern proved Sinestro (the red guy for non comics fans) wrong by sealing him in a big green bubble (hey, it's a comic book; point was, GL didn't kill him.  It's no more unbelievable than Batman dodging assault weapons fire or Wolverine carving up a hundred ninjas.) 

The idea that enemies are not like us so we have to kill them is something the human race needs to put behind us. The only ones who profit are the political hawks and religious fanatics who use it to send people to fight their wars and the rich who only want to carve up what's left.  Why, as some would have Katniss do, give them what they want?

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

JOHN CARTER OF MARS



I first read the Mars books by Edgar Rice Burroughs in high school in the 60s. I'd been reading boys' books like Tom Swift Jr and the Hardy Boys, and the Tarzan books were stocked with those. When I found a trade paperback volume of three ERB's Mars novels I picked it up. It contained not the first but the middle three of the series, THUVIA MAID OF MARS, THE CHESSMEN OF MARS and THE MASTERMIND OF MARS - by which time Carter's offspring Carthoris and Tara, and new arrival to Mars Ulysses Paxton had taken up the action. I was carried away to ERB's Barsoom, with its dying civilizations, incomparable princesses and sword-swinging heroes. I was fortunate in that the 60s had a Burroughs boom that saw release of the whole series - and ERB's Venus, Moon Men and Pellucidar books - in affordable paperbacks, with art by greats like Frank Frazetta, Roy Krenkel and J. Allen St. John. Burroughs took the time to make his books plausible enough for their time; his Mars was as astronomers perceived it at the turn of the century: dead sea bottoms, canals and the possibility of humanoid life. He developed Barsoom with its own ecology, language, customs, mores and science, even set down the rules for the Martian version of chess, Jetan.

The movie was as true to ERB's spirit as could be expected today. It does lack some of the romance that Carter is mourning a recently dead wife and child, and as usual these days his motives had to be personal at first, war-weary and interested only in returning to Earth (Jasoom) and his cave of gold, but he does finally join Dejah Thoris and her cause. One change I did appreciate is that the women are not the "simpering wimps" of 1900s fantasy; Dejah Thoris is a scientist and warrior and we see women among the airship crews.

Also in keeping with today's filmgoers' interests there had to be a threat to Earth, so the Holy Therns are developed from coniving preists to interstellar parasites with high tech/mystical powers. I found that an interesting addition, though, and since they're still around at the end, provides a plot for sequels since the film discarded the original cliffhanger ending.

Carter arrives on Mars fully clothed instead of as stark naked as the book, and the Martians who were described as wearing only sword harnesses or ornaments are overdressed. There is a difference though between being told that without any explicit description and seeing men and women parade around naked on the screen. The same difference between being naked and seeing somebody else naked. I still think they should have worn less, though, if only because their armor and capes made them look more Roman than alien.

Still, most of the TARZAN films were departures from the original and I still enjoy them as well as the books. And the long-running Dell TARZAN comic books, which I'm now collecting in hardcover archives - a mashup of the Tarzan of the novels and the movies.

I was disappointed with the pilgrimage down the River Is, a sort of physical journey to Heaven, which in the book (it was actually in the second book, THE GODS OF MARS), the journey ended in a domain of plant-creatures who killed and fed on the pilgrims. ERB was known for mocking religious fundamentalists and the story was one of his best satires on people who live their lives in futile pursuit of eternal bliss instead of living to the fullest.

One weakness the film can't help is that since it was the seminal interplanetary adventure story, it has been copied and bypassed by later films from FLASH GORDON to STAR WARS and AVATAR. Still, I can only recommend JOHN CARTER (OF MARS as the closing credits have it) highly to Burroughs readers and non-readers alike.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Letting Go















I just read Penn Jilette's book, GOD, NO and I was moved by his family's way of dealing with death. His dying mother had helium balloons by her bedside, and she told them that when she died she wanted them to take them outside and let them go, and to realize that they would never see those balloons again. It became a family tradition with them. I would like my families (blood and otherwise) to accept my passing (even though it's not going to happen til sometime after the universe stops expanding if I have anything to say about it) in a similar way.



As for me, I will be in Hell ... Heaven ... Paradise ... the Great Unknown ... the Other Side ... the Grey Havens ... Tanelorn ... and the Shadowland. None of these places exist, but then neither will I.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Other Times, Other Places













































































































In the Phillipines in 1950, a young girl named Narda swallowed a stone and transformed into DARNA, superhuman warrior woman from the planet Marte. Since then, she and supporting heroes Captain Barbell, Lastikman, Dyesebel the mermaid and more have battled villains like Valentina, Lucifera, Mambabarang king of insects and assorted vampires, zombies and aliens in movies, tv and comic books. Even today she is as beloved an icon as Wonder Woman or Buffy.


Since the 1940s, Mexico's greatest luchadore was EL SANTO, "The Man in the Silver Mask." Along with his wrestling career, Santo was a superheroic champion of justice in comics, and in movies like Santo Vs the King of Crime, Santo Vs the Vampire Women, Santo Vs the Martian Invasion and many more. He was an idol of children and the common man alike, the first and maybe only superhero in fiction and in real life.


In 1971, Takeshi Hongo was kidnapped by a terrorist organization called Dai Shocker, that turned their victims into mutant-cyborg warriors for evil. Hongo escaped and used the powers Dai Shocker had given him as the motorcycle-riding, grasshopper-helmed hero KAMEN RIDER ("Masked Rider"). He was the first in a long line of Kamen Riders in successive live-action tv series, manga and toys. In 2009 ten incarnations of Riders from alternate realities (and previous tv series) teamed up to save the universe.




From the 1930s through the early 50s, DOC SAVAGE - the Man of Bronze - was the hero of the average man. For 10 cents an issue his monthly pulp magazine adventures took readers on globe-hopping adventures to exotic places like the Phantom City, the Valley of the Vanished and the Land of Always Night in pursuit of supercriminal masterminds along with Doc's five aides, whose amiable roughneck nature belied their genius in chemistry, law, engineering, archaeology and electricity. Doc himself, raised as a perfect mental and physical specimen, was a genius in everything. He was always three steps ahead of his enemies. Doc's cousin, Patricia, was an early example of a heroine who could hold her own in the company of their rowdy crew.


In 1929, a Belgian cartoonist known as Herge created a young reporter named TINTIN. His adventures appeared in serial form in Belgian comics magazines like PILOTE. and when the serials ended they were collected in graphic albums. Not only are these still in print, but they are sold in many languages worldwide including English. Tintin's adventures with his dog Snowy and companions like Captain Haddock, Professor Calculus and the detective twins Thompson and Thompson (most names altered for English) are a mix of humor, mystery, suspense, political commentary and even science fiction. Though he is little known in America, Tintin is one of the most beloved characters in comics around the world. Steven Speilberg is a fan and is producing a major motion picture version.


Adventure or continuity strips are all but dead in America, but there was a time when people followed them avidly. The characters were part of our lives. The marraige of Dick Tracy and Tess Truehart, the death of Raven Sherman in Milton Caniff's TERRY AND THE PIRATES (which brought in sympathy cards for years after), the birth of Sparkle Plenty in DICK TRACY were like society events for the middle class - and not just the middle class. When Little Orphan Annie's faithful dog, Sandy, was run over, her creator Harold Grey received cards and letters begging him to let Sandy live, including a telegram from Henry Ford. During a newspaper strike in 1945, New York mayor Fiorello Laguardia read the comics on radio so people could keep up. Most of the artists reflected the holidays in their continuity, either in-story or with special strips with the characters wishing everybody happy holidays and making them feel even more like part of our lives. I'm currently reading hardcover collections of ANNIE, and despite the crude-by-today's-standards art it is a masterpiece evoking the spirit of the Great Depression era. Grey's philosophy is an intergral part of the strip. Annie, "Daddy" Warbucks and more display an honesty, ethics and common sense that helps me understand the conservative mindset.


In the days before tv, radio was filled with adventure series. People followed THE SHADOW, CAPTAIN MIDNIGHT, THE LONE RANGER, CHANDU THE MAGICIAN and radio versions of characters like TARZAN, ORPHAN ANNIE and BUCK ROGERS faithfully. CAPTAIN MIDNIGHT and others were interactive shows. Kids could join Captain Midnight's Secret Squadron and receive a Code-O-Graph to decode messages that were vital to the plot, and hope to be called on when the Captain needed help.


In 1961, PERRY RHODAN, commanding the first lunar expedition, discovered a crashed spaceship from the mostly degenerated Arkonide empire. With his crew and Arkonides Crest and Thora, he united the warring nations of Earth and went on to found the Solar Empire. His adventures in time and space have been published weekly in Germany by a team of writers ever since, and are currently at issue #2553. The superintelligence ES made him immortal early on - Perry and his companions are currently living in the year 5050AD by our reckoning (although they have gone through several different calendars by now). They have met with the highest known powers in the universe, the Cosmocrats and the Chaotarchs. The series predated a lot of concepts made popular later: Rhodan's Mutant Corps appeared two years before X-MEN, and the Posbis (for positronic-biological) were forerunners of STAR TREK's Borg, including the cube-shaped ships. There are spinoff series like ATLAN (the immortal Arkonide who founded the colony of Atlantis 10,000 years ago), models ships, collectible card games and video games.


I like reading the old books and the international ones, watching the films and listening to the radio shows. Like Charles Dickens and Sherlock Holmes, they evoke the spirit of other times and other places. Not just the descriptions and customs, but what people thought and felt. Somehow it lets me connect with the people of those times and places, and understand that they were not so different.

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Wednesday, August 12, 2009

WAREHOUSE 13


A basic archetype in myth is the quest object. From the earliest epics like Gilgamesh, who sought the secret of eternal life, through Seigfrid's Ring of the Niebelung and the Holy Grail in Arthurian legend and the sutra scrolls in the Chinese epic JOURNEY TO THE WEST, heroes have sought mystical objects or artifacts of great power. In modern myths, Indiana Jones, Lara Croft, Sydney Fox of RELIC HUNTER and now Annja Creed in the paperback series ROGUE ANGEL have hunted down everything from the Ark of the Covenant to Gabriel's Horn.


Where do these heroes put all these fabulous things when they find them? SyFy has a new series that answers that question in WAREHOUSE 13.


The idea of a secret storage for paranormal artifacts has been in the popular consciousness for a while. The warehouse archetype is probably derived from Hanger 18 at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, where UFO lore says that the Roswell remains were taken. That was expanded to Area 51 at Groom Lake, Nevada near Las Vegas, where alien tech is supposedly stored while scientists work on reverse engineering it.

That's another form of modern myth - the kind people believe in. The concept was popularized in popular fiction in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK when the Ark ended up locked away in a secret government storehouse. It was around in different forms before that, though. The 1930s pulp hero Doc Savage had a Fortress of Solitude where he kept, not artifacts, but inventions he's seized in his adventures that were too dangerous to let loose in the world.

The archetype appeared in the 80s tv series FRIDAY THE 13TH, as a curio shop that collected cursed mystical objects (coincidentally with 13 in the title too, which may set conspiracy theorists off and running). In the TV/DVD series THE LIBRARIAN it was a secret section in the Metropolitan Public Library. The whole thing was parodied in LOONEY TUNES: BACK IN ACTION when Bugs Bunny discovered Area 52 filled with aliens from 50s science fiction films, Daleks from DOCTOR WHO and more.


WAREHOUSE 13 soldifies the archetpe by focusing on the warehouse itself and the people who work there. Artie, the genius in charge of "snagging, bagging and tagging" artifacts is a colorful character brilliantly underplayed by Saul Rubinek in a role that could easily be over the top in a lesser actor's hands. He knows the thousands of items in the warehouse and can pull one up at a moment's notice.


His two agents, Pete (Eddie McClintock) and Mika (Joanne Kelly), are the field workers who hunt down the artifacts. They're a clever match of logic and feelings. She operates by observation and deduction and he works with hunches, and they've reversed the unusual stereotype of female intuition. McClintock plays Pete and does a great job of making likeable a character who could probably get really annoying in real life, and Kelly is wonderful as an agent who at first suffered Pete about as well as Mr Spock would one of the Three Stooges but is rapidly bonding with him.


CCH Pounder is appropriately formidable as their government boss Mrs Frederick, and Genelle Williams as Leena seemed underused until we saw her dispensing some of her wisdom to Artie in "Elements." Leena's real role may be counseler to the team.


Artie was recently joined by a newcomer, Claudia Donovan, a younger genius played by Allison Scagliotti. The day before I watched that episode she gave a moving performance on MENTAL as a girl ... I mean a boy ... you had to be there. I'll say again that she is an awesome actress. Claudia can out-think Artie (the actress calls her the punk to his steam) and their byplay should be as much fun as Pete and Mika. The scene that best describes their relationship has him yelling, "No no no!" and her "Yes yes yes!"


I like smart heroines with a tart sense of humor, in fact I used to play one in D&D (see Jan 24 2008). I can totally see Taryn saying "Serendipity is my stripper name."


The series is building a deep background mythology. Warehouse 13 is its thirteenth incarnation, one of the first being the Great Library at Alexandria; it moves to the center of power in the world and has been in America for 200 years (getting ready to move to India soon?). There's a touch of steampunk too, with devices designed by Nikola Tesla, something of a modern myth himself. It was designed by Tesla, Thomas Edison and MC Escher. Another new touch is that the artifacts are not always the created type - most are common objects that belonged to a historical character with a powerful personality whose traits were imbued into the artifacts. There's just enough talk about quantum reality to plant the series in SF instead of just mysticism.


There's probably a reason why the warehouse myth appeals to SF fans. Most of us collect - books, comics, movies, toys. WAREHOUSE 13 must seem like a fanboy's dream come true.