Spawn of Mars
Don't worry. If you like your religion, you can keep your religion.
Just Another Guy
God in Supernatural
Monday, January 23, 2017 8:00 pm
Generally I like what Supernatural does with Biblical mythology. Mind you, the writers are only scraping the mythology. They never explore the actual point of this or that story, but only steal from the cultural detritus of a society once Christian, re-purposing folktales they once half-heard in Sunday school.

Take, for example, the arc about the Darkness and the Mark of Cain.

Beware! Spoilers follow. 

So, before Creation, indeed before God, there was chaos, a force later called the Darkness. The Darkness was defeated by God and His Archangels and was locked away. The key to the cell containing the Darkness was entrusted to Lucifer (before his fall). Lucifer, having rebelled against God, used the key to corrupt Cain. The key became the Mark.

There have been three possessors, or keepers, of the key: Lucifer, Cain, and now Dean Winchester (one of the two brother heroes of the show, the other being Sam). Dean took on the Mark so that he could wield the First Blade (the very blade used to kill Abel) and destroy the last remaining Knight of Hell. The Knight is destroyed.

The Mark is corrupting, however, and Dean is becoming like Cain, the King of Murder. Sam conspires with a witch to remove the Mark from Dean. Unfortunately, if the key is not being held, the cell containing the Darkness will be opened. When the Mark is removed from Dean, the Darkness escapes.

No one quite realized what the Mark really was. The business about it being a key was not revealed until it was too late. Even then, given the bond between Dean and Sam (who have literally let the world suffer rather than let the other be ruined or taken away), Sam likely would not have stopped it anyhow.

Now, that is good mythmaking. I love the bit about the First Blade, the mere jawbone of a donkey that, having been used in the first murder, becomes a legendary weapon. I love how the Mark, in magical fashion, is itself a powerful object. And every episode with Cain is just great (the casting of Timothy Omundson, an actor I have otherwise never heard of, was somehow perfect).

You can see, of course, how this arc is not entirely Biblical. Its infidelity to Scripture is not the bothersome part. Nothing wrong — at all — with treating the Bible as a source of folktales to be reshaped in fiction. What bothers me, rather, are the polemical flavorings of the arc.

To begin with, Supernatural says that Cain did not kill Abel out of jealousy. Abel was not being faithful to God; he was worshiping Lucifer. Cain killed Abel to liberate his brother. In other words, Cain was motivated by love. The goody-two-shoes Abel was in fact beholden to the Evil One. Abel, like any other model to the Christian, was actually a deluded hypocrite.

How's that for a retcon? Why, it's only the conventional perspective of any de-Christianized modern.

It gets worse. It turns out the Darkness did not precisely predate God; it is, in fact, God's sister. God, though still the Creator in Supernatural's scheme, is really just a god, one of a two-member pantheon.

And because Supernatural cannot embrace the truly Christian definition of God as, in principle, being incapable of sharing a genus or family with anything, the writers are free to put God in the dock. Or, probably more to the point, intending to put God in the dock, they found it easier to diminish Him.

Ever since the Angels first appeared in Supernatural, back in the fourth season, the absence of God — His failure to help prevent even the Apocalypse, let alone the deaths or ruinations of characters — has been decried. Thematically, of course, God represents the absent Father, which plays off the failures of Dean and Sam's human father. But His absence (which, admittedly, is real enough to the superficial observer of the real world) also grounds Supernatural's judgments against Him.

For a long time I've tolerated Supernatural's take on Angels and Heaven and God. It is conventional nonsense about how following the mandates of Heaven — i.e., the will of God — is a loss of freedom. We are at our best when, like the crowd in Life of Brian, we cry out together, "We are all individuals!" We are better than Angels because we defy God. Supernatural takes this human self-worship to such a degree, that it casts Lucifer's rebellion as a refusal to venerate Mankind.

But again, I tolerated this because, hey, I have a soft spot for the monster-hunting and melodrama.

In the eleventh season, however, God makes an explicit appearance, and this is when the show becomes disappointing. The season itself has some good episodes (I particularly liked the one about imaginary friends), but the resolution of the Darkness storyline entails a rehearsal of every small-minded conception of God the Failure.

See, this is Chuck. He is an anxious, agitated drunk. A loser. In a meta-fictional turn, he writes a series of books called Supernatural. He knows what has happened and will happen to the Winchesters. He, it seems, is a Prophet.

No. Wait. Turns out Chuck is God. Or rather, this is how God manifests Himself. Yet it's not an act. God really is a sad sack. He is petulant and whiny. He doesn't listen to prayers. He stopped intervening miraculously because it was pointless. He is fatalistic. He ran away. Supernatural reduces God to One of Us. In fact Man has surprised and surpassed Him by creating music and nacho cheese. God may be the Creator, but at heart He is Chuck.

Supernatural's contribution to theodicy is that God is precisely as small as you fear that He is. Rather than deal with the problems of evil and suffering as, for example, does the Magisterium of the Catholic Church, especially in its great thinkers like Aquinas, Supernatural finds refuge in the usual, limited conception of God as a guy out of his depth, not much better than another Zeus.

Above all, this is an artistic failure in Supernatural. It is common enough. Supernatural is hardly alone in its portrayal of God; many college sophomores would concur. But it is facile. Imagine, rather, that Supernatural had foregone the Chuckism and dealt with the actual Christian God, the actual God. Artistically, yes, that would have been bad, too, since the previous seven seasons had not been preparing you for such a turn. But if the prep had been good, how much more intellectually interesting everything would have been!

By making God Chuck, the writers took the easy way out and, not so incidentally, allowed themselves to feel superior to the Deity who has so terribly failed us, we who are, despite all our faults, the most wonderful people ever.

Thus the Gospel of the Moderns.

An Inadequate Number of Robots
Hugo Awards 2015 - Short Stories
Sunday, June 14, 2015 10:42 am
I am a voter for the 2015 Hugo Awards. I am posting my thoughts about the candidate works. Be warned that spoilers abound.

There are five short stories on the Hugo list. I'll be referring to them using the following abbreviations.

OSP — On a Spiritual Plain by Lou Antonelli
PBB — The Parliament of Beasts and Birds by John C. Wright
SS — A Single Samurai by Steven Diamond
TT — Totaled by Kary English
TC — Turncoat by Steve Rzasa

My comments on these shorts will be short — and scattered.  

PBB is beautifully written.
Above the coliseum and circus, where athletes strove and acrobats danced and slaves fought and criminals were fed alive to beasts for the diversion of the crowds...
That is just one early phrase, with no particular thematic purpose. But read it aloud. It is pointed and rhythmic. And the argument among the Beasts, about who dare enter the final city of Man, is adroitly — let us say — highfalutin'. SS, though less blatantly poetic, turns words in a way that makes a fight with a Godzilla contemplative.

I appreciated that, right after a brief setting of weirdness (narrator huddled on a polar plain with aliens and a human ghost), OSP just explained the mechanics of the situation. I love piecemeal revelation; but especially in a short story, sometimes bluntness is best. TC makes very fine use of a biblical quote, one not well known, that enriches and does not merely decorate. TT's ultimate point is emotional, and to that end nicely uses emotional imagery as part of the SF mechanics.

TC's villain, if you will, is not an AI, but a post-human. The genocidal impulse of the Integration is grounded in hatred from humans for humans. This is better than the usual (often inscrutable) hatred of the Golem for its Master. All I know about samurai I know from fiction yet it seems to me that SS well depicts the point of a samurai, and makes use of it for the resolution. The defeat of the kaiju comes not from some superpowered hero but from the soul of the samurai, as distinct from the souls other warriors. I can't help but think that TT is a commercial for euthanasia; it seemed a little sour, somehow. In the end it's all emoting, not even a frank assertion of this or that point of view on human life.

That the rebellious AI in TC calls itself 'Benedict' at the end seems inapt. Arnold was a turncoat, yes, but not in a good way. Using the name of an American villain as a kind of punchline nearly knocks over the plot. Meanwhile, TT makes a cheap jab at conservatives (calling them 'Treaders'), which, like most left-wing jabs, incorrectly ascribes to conservative intent some evil that leftists actually do (i.e., government-run healthcare-rationing panels).

What distinguishes SF from other sorts of fantastical fiction is, of course, the science; and nothing says 'science' like numbers. TC's litany of empirical specifics just tickles me. True, in some ways it is less science than tech porn, but it is a milieu I love. Wright, who loves to work in eons, is very good at depicting the End of Man, no less so in PBB. SS makes the kaiju a force of nature, frightening in a way that a mere Godzilla can't be; the enormousness and enormity are very well evoked.

I love hard SF. These stories weren't thrilling me in that regard, at least not until I got to TC. Then again, I don't always like cold-hearted SF. (One of the reasons I love Solaris is that — rarely for Lem — there is actual human emotion amid the philosophy.) So while I was disappointed by the rotten paucity of robots, I did like what I read (except for TT, which is nonetheless well-written). In fact, my favorite was SS, which had nary a vacuum tube.

My final vote will be, in this order: SS, TC, PBB, OSP, TT.

The Goblin Emperor
Hugo Awards 2015 - Novel by Katherine Addison
Friday, May 29, 2015 6:59 pm
I am a voter for the 2015 Hugo Awards. I am posting my thoughts about the candidate works. Be warned that spoilers abound.

Maia, the half-goblin and youngest son of the Emperor of the Elflands, banished with his mother from the court, inherits the crown when the Emperor and all other his other sons are killed in an airship accident (which was, in fact, no accident). Maia is not at all prepared and has to find his place.

To begin with, this novel passed one of my standard tests: I never cringed at the dialogue. Sometimes I cringed at what was being said, but never the way it was being said. None of it was cloying or cute. Indeed, none of the writing made me cringe. That may seem like faint praise, but it's not. Addison's style is controlled and effective. She revealed things in a sound order, with a sound pacing. Things followed one another well and I wanted to keep reading. Her fantasy world did not dazzle me and seems a bit conventional (even to me, who doesn't read much fantasy), but it worked. 

At one point, Maia receives a letter from Mer Celehar, who is investigating the sabotage that killed the previous Emperor. The letter is long and describes everything Celehar has been up to. Momentarily I thought: "This stuff is good. Addison should have narrated this action as a sub-story instead of having it relayed in a messenger speech." But immediately I realized two things. First, the action was engaging enough, even if presented at a remove. Second, any sub-story — that is, a chapter from Celehar's point of view — would have been contrary to the novel's approach. Everything is from Maia's point of view. Maia is in every scene. This is a book about Maia as Emperor, not about court intrigue and the like. The intrigue is there, of course, but only as something around Maia. In the end, Addison's disciplined maintenance of one point of view keeps you properly bound to Maia's travails.

Early on there are some conventional hints of steampunk (most notably: transport via airship). I appreciate such things, not least because I favor tech even in my fantasy. And while this is not a steampunk novel by any means, the clockwork steam-tech is actually relevant. The Clocksmiths' Guild figures in both the sabotage that starts the tale and the building of a wonderful mechanical bridge. This bridge is an occasion of Maia's political assertion and, in the end, symbolic of Maia's nature as an Emperor. It is pleasing that the tech is not just decoration.

This being a novel published in 2014, I was braced (as ever) for social nonsense.

Celehar has been disgraced for having a male lover who was also a murderer. A nobleman is afraid of having a young man interviewed in wake of an assassination attempt because, of course, he is lusting after that young man. One of Maia's goblin half-sisters became a pirate captain and has a "wife." This final tidbit is more like signaling from Addison than agitprop, but the implication is that a woman naturally might have a "wife." These things are tolerable, however, not least because no character says: "Golly, there's nothing wrong with loving a man, Celehar!" And indeed, the characters, at least, tend to accept that such loves are "unnatural." So the homosexual messaging was mild.

On the other hand, the feminist messaging kneecaps the novel. And I mean kneecaps it. Despite some misgivings, I was really enjoying things — and then in Chapter 34 (of 35), we get the full-on "Hear Me Roar" denouement. Now, the things presented are not non sequiturs. Addison is actually a careful writer, and I'm generally impressed with the way everything was neatly plotted, not least the intrigue. Nothing in Chapter 34 comes out of the blue. However, it was all better left unsaid.

Except — I realized sadly as I read on — Chapter 34 was Addison's point. She could no more leave it unsaid than simply stop writing.

Take, as an example, Maia's elven half-sister Vedero. Earlier she had been promised as wife to a son of a prominent family. There had been no formal contract, however. And as it turns out, she does not wish to be married. Maia asks her what she would do, were she not given in marriage. And she replies that she would "study the stars."

Yes, fine, there are girls who would rather be scholars than wives. It's a character touch, it explains her refusal, it's a nod to the conventions of this girls-can-do-anything era of ours. But in Chapter 34, Maia joins Vedero at the telescope. Vedero is, of course, wearing trousers. She goes on about the wondrous telescope — which was designed by a woman. Then she goes on about her colleagues, of whom one is translating works of poetry, another is writing a treatise, another has started a magic school for girls... Yea, all sorts of women disdaining marriage and motherhood! "Women," as Vedero says, her shoulders "stiffly defensive," "can and should do the same intellectual work as men."

Thus, what was a tolerable character touch becomes jarring propaganda. STEM for the elven lasses!

You realize that many noblewomen in the book have been acting, in one way or another, against their duties — chafing, bristling, brooding. Again, Chapter 34 is not out of the blue; it is, in retrospect, inevitable. Earlier, Maia's Empress-to-be said that she preferred to be allowed to choose her duties. What a colossal misunderstanding of duties! We do not choose our duties. What we are imposes duties. Some things we can choose to be: a scholar; a wife. Some things we can not choose to be: a woman; a daughter. But in either case, the duties are never chosen. They simply must be fulfilled. And yes, sometimes a prior duty prevents us from choosing to be, say, a scholar instead of a wife.

The very worst feminist moment comes in the excuses made for Shevean. She is mother of the other surviving heir to the throne, Maia's younger nephew Idra. Shevean participated in a failed coup against Maia. And Idra says of her:
She is very fierce. [...] She would not be what she is if she ever had something given her that was a burden equal to her strength. One hears people say it all the time — 'she should have been a son to her father' — but it is true. If she had been a son, she would have had a duty that went beyond children.
Idra does elaborate by describing Shevean's simple rage against Maia, who, like everyone it seems, would not conform to her wishes; but the fundamental blame belongs, of course, to patriarchy.

In fairness, Chapter 34 is not only feminist claptrap. Essentially it is the crystallization of Maia as Emperor. The specifically feminist stuff is there because Maia is the Emperor who builds the bridges. After all, Maia is the one who, among so much else, allowed a woman to be one of his bodyguards. Why, this is a Goblin Emperor that even a 21st-century American feminist can support!

Not least because Maia is essentially a woman.

When I started the novel, his name threw me. "Maia" is a woman's name. Oh, wait, no, the pronouns indicate "Maia" is a he. Well. Okay. Fantasy novel; goblin language; I don't know. Fine. Maia is a he. And you have to keep reminding yourself that he is. It's as if Addison is trolling you, giving him a girl's name and daring you not to notice his essential girlishness.

I don't mean in his emotions, as such. I think Addison does a good job depicting Maia's pain and difficulties. He is quite credible as an abused, neglected, overwhelmed, and sad young person. However, he is not credible as an exemplar of anything male.

This is most evident in the way that all his struggles are resolved in the infamous Chapter 34. Basically, he makes friends with all those who have not attempted to overthrow or assassinate him. With so many of the people who had distrusted or troubled him, he achieves a kind of rapport.
Idra, Csethiro, Nedao, Vedero: instead of bulwarks, he began to feel he had alliances, that his life — for perhaps the first time since his mother died — was not merely a matter of surviving from one hostile encounter to the next.
Now, Maia is not utterly naive, nor is the book. As he says to his bodyguards:
I believe that the Adremaza meant his advice for the best, but he was cruelly wrong. I do not ask, or expect, you to be friends with me as you are friends with other mazei, or other soldiers in the Untheileneise Guard. But it... it's silly to deny that we hold each other in affection.
And when the bodyguards affirm their affection for him, Maia says: "Then we will be a different sort of friends."

None of this is handled shabbily. It is affecting. But as a culmination it is so feminine. The word "alliances" is used but what we actually have here is an end to Maia's emotional isolation. This is what terminates his imperial worries. His reign will be good because he has friends. He has gained no insights or skills regarding the flourishing of his realm; but gosh and golly, people really like him. They do!

Honestly. What a girl.

For a while I was excited by The Goblin Emperor. Here is a book I'd never heard of, that did not involve space fleets or cybernetics, that I began reading just to judge it for an award; yet, over a weekend, I kept returning to it gladly, in between this or that. Then the sour bits accumulated. Then Chapter 34 hit.

Is it a well-written book? Yes. Is it worth reading? Yes. Does it deserve to be on the Hugo shortlist? Sure. Do I regret reading it? Not really.

I don't know anything about Addison. I am not judging the book based on her race, sex, or whom she voted for in 2012. I do not deny the simple quality of this book because of its feminist message. It is not merely message fiction; there is a good story here. But in the end, the message is never irrelevant to the evaluation of a book. I would never award first place to a novel with the shopworn attitude of The Goblin Emperor.

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