5.21.2012

Your Bi-Weekly Update #6

These updates seem to be getting further apart -- bi-weekly may well become monthly ere long. Be that as it may ...

1. You know a man's busy when he's a proud monarchist and finds himself at the office on Victoria Day rather than at home with his family, a cigar, and a libation to celebrate the occasion. I've got a big "guns and gangs" case in Toronto the next two weeks, then after that I'll be preparing for a preliminary inquiry on my first murder case as a defence lawyer in July -- so I'm afraid the posting here at Swords and Space may continue to be a little more sparse than I'd like. So please be patient and hopefully by the fall we'll be back to a four-per week posting cycle.

2. I was listening to the soundtrack to the HBO television adaptation of A Song of Rape and Murder A Song of Ice and Fire (a.k.a. Game of Thrones). It's a fantastic soundtrack and conveys a dark, yet at the same time more human and grander vision than what the books held. I'm tempted to get the first season on DVD, but on the other hand I know the nonsense that's to follow as they adapt A Clash of Kings et al. so why get "into" the start of it only to know bitter disappointment awaits? And if George Martin ever does finish his magnum opus, how much do you want to bet that it has some outrageously horrible ending such as that found in Mockingjay?

3. My very good friend Stephen Heiner recently bought the for me the first issue of the re-release of X-O Manowar. Never heard of it before he told me he'd purchased this for me while he was getting his own copy, but after he told me about it, it sounds right up my alley. A Visigoth in a suit of living armour (sounds like a cross between T-1000 and Spider Man's black suit) fighting against spider aliens? Sign me up. Gave me some ideas of my own to tinker with, too (I know, I know, I've got enough projects that I'm making little progress on without adding more).

5.15.2012

Suicide/Euthenasia Trope

 Scene from Alien: Director's cut -- Captain Dallas
begs Ripley to kill him to shorten his suffering

Firstly, apologies for the dearth of posts this week. It's been a busy and stressful week not just with work but some goings-on between the Vatican and a certain order of priests that could irrevocably alter my family's life.

That said, I complained in my review of The Hunger Games about the glorification of suicide -- for those who haven't read the book or seen the film, rather than throw down their weapons in defiance of the Capital's order that Katniss and Peeta attempt to kill one another, they decide on an impromptu suicide pact as the great solution that wins the day. Suicide and euthenasia as an "honourable" or "humane" thing to do has cropped up in quite a few works. It comes up a fair bit in works based in the Aliens "universe", starting with Ridley Scott's Director's cut of Alien where he inserted a discarded scene of an cacooned Dallas begging Ripley to kill him (she does), to Cameron's settler asking the marines to kill her, to the Dark Horse comics which continue the tradition. I know there was a third work I was going to mention but I've forgotten ...

It's all a not-so-subtle promotion of euthenasia as good humanitarian act, another bit of the whole "dying with dignity" propaganda. It's also rather sympathetic -- who wouldn't rather get a quick bullet to the head rather than have a vicious alien burst its way out through your chest? Which is why it's certainly dangerous and something people must be aware and critical of when they are reading any work.

I won't go into a long rant about why suicide and euthenasia are wrong, but on a purely pragmatic level, I think that people tempted to suicide are done a great disservice by the romanticisation that suicide receives --  suicides seem to beget more suicides. Whenever there is a suicide in a community, there seem to be others when that other depressed people see all the positive attention the suicide receives and this encourages them. If a suicide receives just reprehension for his crime, on the other hand -- as was done in the Catholic Church of yore -- they will be deterred. Is it cruel to prevent more suicides?

5.12.2012

The Hunger Games (Book Review)


Title: The Hunger Games
Author: Suzanne Collins
Publisher: Scholastic Press
My Rating: 2 stars
Summary in a Sentence: A mediocre "dystopian future"-themed young adult novel that features the disturbing spectacle of children killing each other in gladiatorial-style games, which has neverthless touched something in the young-adult crowd being a best-seller for some time now

Just to start off, a very quick recap of the basic plot of this novel, for those unfamiliar with it:

The Hunger Games takes place in a dystopic far-future North America, in a state named "Panem", composed of a capital and 12 districts. Years ago the districts rebelled, were crushed, and now as a punishment with send one randomly-selected boy and girl between 12 and 18 to the yearly Hunger Games. At those games the contestants battle to the death until there is just one survivor. Katniss Everdeen, a 17-year-old inhabitant of District 12 volunteers to be her district's female "tribute" when her 12 year old sister is chosen.

Much of what I wrote in my review of the film version of The Hunger Games applies to the novel, but I would add some commentary that pertains specifically to the novel. If asked which of the two I preferred, I think that the film was slightly less cynical and was a lot easier to "consume" owing to the fact that I really disliked the first-person present tense the novel was written in. It was like nails on a chalkboard for me, quite honestly.

But setting that stylistic concern aside, in terms of the cynicism, most of the characters were even more evil or unlikeable in the novel, whereas in the film they were made a bit more human with SOME redeeming qualities. Haymitch Abernathy (a previous survivor of the Hunger Games from District 12), for example, while still a drunk and a pig, was rather charmingly portrayed by Woody Harrelson in the film -- whereas in the novel he was completely disgusting, passing out in his own vomit and scarcely of any assistance to anyone. Katniss herself was, if possible, even less heroic and more out for herself.

This played-out especially in the "romance" between her and Peeta Mellark (the other District 12 "tribute"). In the film, it was ambiguous as to whether it was all an act or if she had developed some feelings for him. In the novel, it is made repeatedly clear that she is only pretending affection for him to gain a benefit in the game. Which left a rather sour taste in this reader's mouth, as this came across as a form of prostitution. Yet I wonder if this isn't another area of resonance with young adults, especially young ladies? Sex is literally pushed on these young people from a very young age with "sex education" in schools and a constant bombardment of sensuality in the media they are absolutely marinated in (television, music videos, the internet). And I suspect that the young ladies are not quite as enthusiastic about it all as the young men are, and thus to a degree feel "pressured" into it for reasons not unlike Katniss. Especially when coupled with the sense of abandonment from parents and the resultant "looking for love in all the wrong places".

The sense of abandonment for adults and even hatred of them was more prevalent in the novel. At least once per chapter or every other chapter, Katniss reflects back on her father's death and mother's depression/mental abandonment that followed. With these internal monologues, it is made more clear how completely Katniss had to care for herself and her sister.

Chapter nine has a quote that I thought fairly summarizes how many young people feel today: "All I can think of is how injust the whole thing is, the Hunger Games. Why am I hopping around trying to please people I hate?" For sure, not all of today's young adults feel that way, but it seems that a number of them do, if one is to judge by anecdotal evidence, high suicide rate, and media. I believe that sense is part of why (perhaps subconsciously) the youth have been so drawn to this work. Of course, it's highly a problematic theme because it helps entrench the "war between the generations".

The worldbuilding was seriously lacking, and this is another area where I get my "mediocre" descriptor from. For science fiction, there was scarcely any world building to speak of beyond a vague sense that this is a far-future "post apocalyptic" world. There was no history presented other than the rebellion that led to the Hunger Games, no sense of how Panem came to be, why there was a revolt in the first place, how the districts came to be so thoroughly crushed that they don't protest the barabric spectacle of the Games. But further, the attempt at a completely "post-Christian" world made no sense, from a perspective of human nature. Let us assume that in this post-apocalyptic America all vestages of Christianity were eradicated so long ago that the society is basically a pre-Christian one (because of no knowledge of Christ or Christianity at all) -- people would not behave like modern liberals in such circumstances. The whole glorified suicide at the end is a good example of this. No society has ever treated suicide this way.

So, on the whole, I wasn't much impressed with the work. I didn't find it particularly original or entertaining. It was disturbing in parts, which isn't of itself bad, but as I referenced in the movie review,  was perverted in this novel with its amorality (or attempt at it). Ignoring the grating present tense, the writing was good but nothing extraordinary. Worldbuilding seriously sub-par. Characters were decent, but were better in the film (perhaps evidence of Suzanne Collins' skills improving since she wrote the screenplay?).

5.10.2012

Good Answers

I suppose Facebook is good for something after all. As mentioned a while back I reluctantly opened an account there for the purposes of getting a bit more exposure for Swords and Space. But this week it proved a useful source for opinions. Having no good answer for Sophia's Favourite's question in the Mediæval Plumbing post ("...why post-Renaissance Europeans decided to wallow in their own filth?"), I asked on Facebook. My friend Eric Jones opined:

I blame the Reformation ... It's easy to characterize bathing as decadent, luxurious (in the old sense of the term) catering to vanity, conducive to sins of the flesh, and so forth. Given that Protestants covered their heresy with a very slavish veneer of moral righteousness, in part a legitimate reaction against late-medieval and Renaissance excess, it's easy to see how bathing could have gone out the window in many parts of Europe. Also, the Reformation triggered widespread, long, and very devastating wars (always a sure way to disrupt social customs) and economic changes. The rich grew much richer on spoliated Church property, and the poor grew poorer, as kind monastic landlords gave way to greedy Calvinist-minded and socially-striving types, usury became even more prevalent, and enclosure and, still later, the Industrial Revolution forced the peasantry into widespread destitution. When you have to slave away for most of your day to earn enough gruel for the stew-pot, bathing becomes an entirely secondary consideration, provided you can afford to spare the extra wood for the fire and have the energy to make additional trips to the well.

I know my own personal experience tells me that when I'm stressed and busy (as, for example, during finals week in college) the fifteen minutes for a shower and shave suddenly becomes much more difficult to squeeze in. I would be inclined therefore to the simple answer: During the Reformation and subsequent centuries, life simply got harder.

If busy men in the 21st century find themselves changing from a daily shower habit into a thrice-weekly habit, how much more might folks who, before, were only inclined to bathe thrice-weekly, or even once a week?

Makes a fair amount of sense to me. 

5.08.2012

Vigilante Justice?

William Roper: So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law!

Sir Thomas More: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?

William Roper: Yes, I'd cut down every law in England to do that!

Sir Thomas More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned 'round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man's laws, not God's! And if you cut them down, and you're just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake!

From A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS
There's been a story circulating on the internet about a Lithuanian man, Drasius Keyds, who shot and killed a judge and a senior politician whom he believed had molested his three-year old daughter. He's been lionized as a hero by many -- the Facebook crowd especially seems to be lauding him as a hero. In the article where I first heard of his case, one Facebook devotee is quoted as saying "[y]ou are a hero to all of us. What you did is nothing but justice."

I can't agree with such a position, so let me diverge from the usual topic of this blog to indulge in a bit of defence lawyer soap-boxing.  The state has the power to execute people, but not private individuals. I have sympathy for this man but cannot condone his appointing himself judge jury and executioner. If what this man did was so right, then why have a justice system at all? Shouldn't those who feel themselves aggrieved be able to go around shooting those who they say did a crime against them?

Also, it sounds like the only evidence comes from his daughter. I question how a three year old could even articulate that any of this happened, and how it could be relied upon. I have done a number of cases as prosecutor and defence involving children older than 3 and it is very unreliable evidence and I am not sure that a man's liberty (let alone his life) can justly be taken away based only on that (let alone without testing the evidence in court). 

Now, I've seen some claim that this act of vigilante "justice" can be justified as defence of another. But it is not defence of another once the act in need of defending is already complete. It is vengeance. Self defence, or defence of another, of course is NOT taking the law into one's own hands since the law explicitly allows it. One is therefore following acting in accordance with the law to do so. Vigilante acts, like the one in question, on the other hand, involve one presuming to carry out extralegal punishment in defiance of existing law. The key here is exacting punishment not defending someone. If this father had walked-in on men assaulting his daughter he'd have every right in that moment to blow their brains out.

To try to tie all this in to a science fiction/fantasy theme, the rugged individualist who takes matters into his own hands has been a popular romantic figure in all manner of literature, especially in the United States. I believe it is a problematic premise for all of the foregoing reasons (and especially St. Thomas More's eloquent defence of due process, even for the devil himself let alone a pedophile, as quoted at the top).

5.05.2012

The Hunger Games (Movie Review)


 Title: The Hunger Games
Director: Gary Ross
Distributor: Lionsgate
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson
Excellence: 2 stars (out of 5)
Summary in a Sentence: A mediocre "dystopian future"-themed film that features the disturbing spectacle of children killing each other in gladiatorial-style games, which has neverthless touched something in the young-adult crowd, grossing nearly $400 million so far

I went to see this film in the theatre solely as research for True Restoration Radio, and to see what all the fuss was about (which is basically why we were doing a show on this). A film that grosses $150 million in its opening weekend must have some appeal. I went in with low expectations -- living under a rock as I do, I was largely ignorant of the whole Hunger Games phenomenon. I knew nothing of the plot save the vaguest idea of the concept. It wasn't terrible, but I'm glad I went on Cheap Tuesday.

So the basic plot is, per Internet Movie Database:

In a dystopian future, the totalitarian nation of Panem is divided between 12 districts and the Capitol. Each year two young representatives from each district are selected by lottery to participate in The Hunger Games. Part entertainment, part brutal retribution for a past rebellion, the televised games are broadcast throughout Panem. The 24 participants are forced to eliminate their competitors while the citizens of Panem are required to watch. When 16-year-old Katniss's young sister, Prim, is selected as District 12's female representative, Katniss volunteers to take her place. 

There really isn't much more to it than that. After the intial heroic act of volunteering to take her sister's place, the rest of the film is just a bunch of action sequences as Katniss tries to stay alive (with the mandatory shaky hand-held camera preventing the viewer from seeing much of it). Rather ho-hum I thought on the whole, although there were some things that were quite good.

I thought the Running Man-esque critique of modern media and the voyeurism of reality shows was very well done. Stanley Tucci as Caesar Flickerman, the host of The Hunger Games was perfect. The heroic self-sacrifice when Katniss steps-in for her sister was good stuff. The "look" of the film, the art direction, etc., something that I pay attention to (and the main reason I'm such a fan of the original Alien) was very well done also. The violence was well-done insofar as it conveyed some of the horror inherent in children killing each other, without being too graphic.

But those good things do not add up to a good film. I thought that many aspects were highly problematic, and the biggest is that this is a truly post-Christian film in that the main protagonist has not a shred of Christian virtue -- and not does anyone else. As I said, after the first self-sacrificing move for her sister, it's all self preservation and this really perverts what could have been a dark, powerful indictment of many aspects of modern society. This unChristian ethical void leads of other things like the pagan glorification of suicide at the end of the film. As complained of recently, I am NOT a fan of the "Xena Warrior Princess" politically correct gender-bending pugilism. That is, having the main protagonist, Katniss, a 16-year-old girl, who is capable of defeating all comers. It's not only horribly cliché and overused in sci fi especially, it's also just plain wrong. Wrong in that women in general aren't just as good at fighting as men, and from a Christian perspective the idea of women fighting is repulsive.  Even the Romans found the spectacle of gladiatrices intolerable and reformed them out after Nero. The whole "adults = evil, children = good" trope (as exemplified by the fact that all the adult characters were either evil or useless, save, interestingly, Katniss' fashion consultant for the show) so common in modern-day literature is really tiring and insidious.

Which leads me to why I think this has been so popular. There is a strong theme of abandonment by parents/adults/society in the film that I think really resonates with today's youth.  So I can see why they are going to see this film in large numbers. But for my money, I do not recommend anyone rush out to see it except maybe as a way of gaining some insight into young adults?

5.03.2012

Mediæval Plumbing


So, having finished The Hunger Games (thankfully - review to follow on Saturday if you missed the radio show) I decided on Witch World by Andre Norton for the leisure component of my reading. It was recommended to me by a friend as "an oldie but a goodie" especially as an example of mixing futuristic tech with a medieval setting as I'm planning with my own fantasy novel. Certainly, older sci fi/fantasy can be trusted not to have the smut or really liberal stuff that's all too common among today's offerings. It's not bad so far, but one line really caught my eye:

Medieval the hold of Estcarp might be superficially, Simon discovered, but the dwellers therein had some modern views on sanitation. He found himself introduced to water which flowed, warm, from a wall pipe when a simple lever was turned, to a jar of cream, faintly fragrant, which applied then wiped off erased all itch of beard.

Well, firstly, the opening comment about "views on sanitation" is just more of the old "medieval people didn't wash" nonsense that I addressed in "Hygiene in the Middle Ages". I'll give her the benefit of a doubt that maybe in the '60s decent research wasn't as easy to come by as it is now. So I won't rail against her. BUT, it is noteworthy that at least some real mediæval castles had even more sophisticated plumbing than Norton's Estcarpians and their "modern" sensibilities.

By the 13th century, important castles with permanent bathrooms had hot and cold running water (for example, Henry III's palace at Westminster had this amenity). Water more humble castles at least had water for washing and drinking at a central drawing point on each floor. Hand washing was sometimes done at a laver or built-in basin in a wall recess (certainly at the entrance to the great hall at least), with waste water carried away by a lead pipe. Castles also made use of rainwater from gutters or a cistern to flush the latrine shafts. Not as sophisticated as the modern toilet, perhaps, but certainly indicative of "views" on sanitation that were not to be sneered at by superior modern folk.

With a tip of the hat to Joseph and Frances Gies' Life in a Medieval Castle for some of the information in this post.

5.02.2012

Call to Arms Update and My Son's Star Wars Art

Lest readers think that I've run out of steam on Call to Arms given the lack of a Wednesday post in about a month, I thought a short update would be in order. I've certainly NOT lost interest in the project and there is still full draft 1.5 or so novel floating around my office.

The SITREP I gave in February maybe seemed a bit pessimistic. But after hashing out said review with the friend, I'm no long reconsidering the project. On the contrary, I've got some great new ideas that were borne of my discussion of the manuscript with my "harsh critic" and am really looking forward to implementing those ideas. The problem, as always, is time but I am slowly getting back into it, and now that it seems pretty clear that it will be impossible for me to have my army ready for the Warhammer 40K tournament in June, I think I'm going to do some work on Call to Arms tonight instead of painting.

Parental duties of course being the main thing preventing me from being as productive as I'd like to be -- but those duties are certainly not without their rewards. This week I've been helping our oldest prepare his submission for his school's all-grades art show this Sunday. Naturally, being the good boy that he is, he wanted to draw one of the all-time classic opening scenes in film. Since a proud father can't help but share, here are a couple of pictures.


Pencils were done yesterday and today, inking done today, colours tomorrow! I know I'm biased, but I think this is pretty good work for a five year old.
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