Punk Rock Can Be Quite Tame

Over at Amatopia, Alex has a post about Geek Conformity. The main subject is a former drummer of the band Nirvana who left to join the army. When asked why he left, he explained that punk rock was too stifling. About this, Alex says:

But his comments–“strict rules for practicing the right kind of individualism”–perfectly encapsulate the contempt I feel for a lot of so-called scenes involving “free thinkers.”

And this is something I find interesting. I grew up with music from my parents’ generation, not my own. The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, Peter, Paul, & Mary—that’s what I listened to while I was growing up in the 1980s. The closest I came to anything contemporary was borrowing my father’s Billy Joel’s Greatest Hits CD. Punk Rock was something very foreign to me that moreover seemed dangerous.

Then as an adult, I actually listened to some. (Note: I’m enough enough of an expert to tell the various genres of people in death-inspired makeup apart. If this is Emo or some other genre I don’t know the difference between and regarded as equally dangerous in my youth, please forgive me.) And I found that it wasn’t actually very different.

Granted, there’s what for simplicity I’ll call “shout rock”, which tends to be very fast and might as well not have lyrics because one can’t tell what any of them are, but amongst the supposedly dangerous stuff where the singers actually sing, well, it turns out to be a bit underwhelming in its satanic majesty.

Readers of this blog might have seen me mention that song before, because it was the opening theme to Friday Night Live’s performances. Anyway, this is hardly scary. In fact, it sounds somewhat reminiscent of The Beatles. Compare it to Hard Day’s Night:

I’m not saying that you’re going to mistake the one song for the other, but if it turned out that Friday I’m In Love was inspired by Hard Day’s Night—or even was intended as a tribute to it—it would hardly be surprising.

There’s another song by The Cure which I discovered I like:

It’s a nice song. Granted, the lead singer is gotten up to look a bit like Pinhead from Hellrazer, but it’s basically a breathy love song. The music itself sounds a bit unfamiliar because of its heavy use of synthesizer, but as this acoustic cover shows, you can easily substitute a wind instrument and it sounds similar:

At the end of the day, it looks strange, but it isn’t actually that strange. And that makes sense when one remembers the context: punk music is a performance. It was also a product, but that just means that it was a performance intended for a large audience.

Now, the thing about performances is that in order to be successful they must be intelligible to the audience. I know that it’s popular for artists to say that they make their art for themselves but that’s (about 99%) nonsense. If they did that, they wouldn’t perform it. And the thing about audiences is that they don’t vary that much in what they find intelligible. They do vary—hence the existence of shout rock and jazzy noise (I don’t know the technical term for the genre of jazz in which the musicians, all heavily under the influence of mind-altering drugs, play random notes for interminable lengths of time with traditional jazz instruments)—but the further outside of common experience one goes, the vastly more one limits the potential size of one’s audience.

Anyone who wants to make a living off of their performances requires either an impressively rich audience or a fairly large one and the former is much harder to come by than the latter. The consequence is that the performer—if he wants to be different—must clever disguise what the audience is familiar with as something that it isn’t. Those who wish to be popular may only ever use novelty as a spice, never as a main course.

All the same, it’s tempting to thing that Rob Parvonian is right: “Punk Music’s such a joke, it’s really just baroque.”

The Best Defense Can Be Recognizing What’s Not A Threat

A few days ago, I was stung by a yellow jacket. (If you’re not from the north-eastern United States, they’re a type of wasp.) I was mowing the lawn in a section where I had let the grass grow a little too long and so didn’t notice their burrow. They felt threatened by my presence and so one stung me.

It was quite painful, and has been for a few days since, but ultimately, that’s not too important. I can simply avoid the nest. But my children play in my back yard and young children can’t be expected to remember where the yellow jacket nest is. So, shortly, the yellow jackets are going to die.

There’s an interesting lesson here—neither I nor my children would normally bother with the nest at all, except that they consider us a threat. By playing it safe—in the sense of not taking chances on what’s a danger and what isn’t—they’re actually playing it dangerous. Because when my children’s safety is on the line, I’ve got some very powerful tools to ensure that not a single one of the things survives to sting my children. And unlike them, I can make sure that they’re completely gone.

There’s a lesson in there, when it comes to dealing with potential threats. In a sense it’s related to Ed Latimore‘s dictum:

Never make enemies for free.

But the general rule is fairly simple. If you’re not sure that somebody is an enemy, be sure that you can beat them before you guarantee that they’re an enemy.

Actually, there’s an additional aspect to that rule. Before you make somebody an enemy make sure that you can beat them and their friends. In this case, the yellow jackets don’t stand a chance against my friends Amazon and the Sawyer company, who will provide me with this rather potent insect poison to pour into their nest:

//ws-na.amazon-adsystem.com/widgets/q?ServiceVersion=20070822&OneJS=1&Operation=GetAdHtml&MarketPlace=US&source=ss&ref=as_ss_li_til&ad_type=product_link&tracking_id=chrislansdown-20&language=en_US&marketplace=amazon&region=US&placement=B001ANQVZE&asins=B001ANQVZE&linkId=cd598c3b7cd746efd95f6c511dabeb77&show_border=true&link_opens_in_new_window=true

(There are a lot of alternatives; I’m actually trying permethrin out for the first time. Something I’ve done before which is cheap and effective is to pour 91% isopropyl rubbing alcohol into the nest. Note: when doing this, keep your eyes open and be ready to run quickly when they notice who is disturbing them. If you’re dealing with hornets—who I’ve heard will pursue people long distances—dress appropriately and have an escape plan to indoors you can get to quickly. In that case, though, you should probably invest in a more special-purpose wasp killer than can be deployed from 20+ feet away. And as always, since this is the internet: don’t do anything yourself and instead hire a professional to do it for you. Including hiring the professional. Hire a professional hirer to hire the professional.)

It’s Not Easy Watching Movies Any More

If one pays attention to how movies are made, it’s hard not to notice that they’d probably be more virtuous enterprises if they were written, directed, performed, etc. by prison inmates. I’m not even really referring to what Rob Kroese described in this tweet:

(If it ever gets deleted, he said, “Nice to see celebrities taking time off from raping each other to condemn prayer”.)

That doesn’t help, of course, but ultimately that concerns the personal virtue of the people involved, which is between them and God. As Chesterton said in a different context, “for [their] god or dream or devil they will answer not to me”.

What really bothers me is the degree to which Hollywood wants to sell evil as good. It’s not a single-minded occupation; they also want to make money, to be praised, and the fulfillment of several other self-interests. But the problem is that there’s a certain amount of trust involved in listening to someone’s story, and people who actively mean you harm are hard to trust.

Part of how I work around this is that I rarely watch new movies and—when I watch movies—tend to re-watch movies I already know are good. But even that is getting harder. Part of it is becoming aware of how long Hollywood has desired to destroy the concepts of decency and goodness in those who watch their movies. Merely watching old movies isn’t safe. Part of it is that it’s easy to become paranoid; to borrow an analogy, when 23 out of 24 M&Ms in the bowl are poisoned, one begins to wonder about one’s skill at picking out the good ones.

The thing is: fear is not a good master. Paranoia is rational, in a certain sort of very limited sense, but it’s not healthy. I suspect that the right way forward is to emphasize how not everyone in Hollywood is actively attempting to be evil, and good can slip through the cracks. The devil is not well organized. He can’t be, since evil is the privation of good and order is good. Or, as Saint Paul said, “where in abounds, grace abounds much more.”

There Was a TV Show Called Grand Jury

I was recently watching the Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode featuring the movie The Sinister Urge, and then I watched Plan 9 From Outer Space with the Mike Nelson commentary. Out of curiosity, I looked it up the cast, because one of the major villains in Sinister Urge was a good guy in Plan 9. His name was Carl Anthony. Here’s a picture of him:

mpv-shot0001

He’s the one in the police uniform. Here’s another picture of him.mpv-shot0002.jpg

His IMDB page only lists four credits:

  • Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959)
  • The Sinister Urge (1960)
  • Grand Jury: Boxing Scandal (1960)
  • Raw Force (1982)

Two things caught my attention. The first was that after some initial success, it was 22 years before he got another part. It’s not much of a movie, but it is a real movie. The IMDB synopsis for Raw Force is:

A group of martial arts students are en route to an island that supposedly is home to the ghosts of martial artists who have lost their honor. A Hitler lookalike and his gang are running a female slavery operation on the island as well. Soon, the two groups meet and all sorts of crazy things happen which include cannibal monks, piranhas, zombies, and more!

The second thing I noticed was that there was a TV show called Grand Jury. Carl Anthony was in the episode called Boxing Scandal. The Wikipedia page has next to no information beside an episode list. Yet there are writers for each episode, and it has actors, so presumably it was some sort of crime drama or detective show about a grand jury. I’m very curious what their premise was since grand juries don’t have continuity. They’re assembled for a few weeks, hear a bunch of cases, determine whether there is sufficient evidence to proceed to trial, then disband. Their goal is not to determine guilt or innocence, which would make it a very odd fit for a detective series.

Then it occurred to me to check to see whether there are any episodes on YouTube. Luck! There is:

It’s curious, to be sure. After a bit more research I discovered that Grand Juries actually do have investigative functions, such as the ability to compel witnesses to testify. The basic format is that some people committed a crime, then the grand jury investigates and tries to catch them. It’s actually a bit reminiscent of Columbo, in the sense of being a how-catch-em rather than a who-dunnit. That said, at least the episode Fire Trap is really more about the tragedy of how crooks fall apart than about investigations by the grand jury.

The acting was decent. The writing was… adequate. Really, it was kind of minimal. It wasn’t subtle, to be sure. To some degree it actually felt like a morality play—somebody made the choice to do a wicked deed and his life fell apart because of it. Of course, I have no way of knowing whether this was a typical episode. Still, I can see why this was not one of the great TV shows which is still remembered. That might be why Carl Anthony got a part in it (this was after Plan 9 but before The Sinister Urge).

This ties in to my earlier post, Most of Life is Unknown. People worked on this show and—presumably—people watched it. Most of them are probably dead by now, and the show is barely known. The wikipedia page which gives its list of episodes is presumably copied from somewhere since most of the entries are TBA. Even the things which we think should last disappear quite quickly from human memory. Fame promises so much and delivers so very little.

It’s a good thing that God is in charge of the world, or we’d be really screwed.

Of All Things To Predict, The Future is the Hardest

Yesterday, I wrote about The Future of Cars According to (Disney in) 1958. This reminded me of a conversation I had, about two decades ago, when I was a freshman in college. One of my majors was computer science (at the time I was tripple-majoring in Math, Computer Science, and Philosophy) and I was speaking with a senior who was also a computer science major. We were discussing Windows versus Linux. I can’t recall exactly how it came up, but he said, very confidently, that in 10 years neither Linux nor Windows would exist any more, both having been replaced by something completely new.

Twenty years later, both Windows and Linux are going strong, though the writing is on the wall for windows and it is gaining ever-more Linux-like features. (Including, recently, a way to easily install Linux within a virtual machine.) Which brings me to the title of this post—the future is notoriously difficult to predict. And I’d like to consider a few of the things which people tend to get wrong.

Adaptation

For some reason, people tend to think of current companies, products, etc. as either completely changing or completely static. Which really amounts to the same thing—the idea that whatever comes next will be completely new. And yet, this is rarely the case. Not never, of course, but rarely.

What prognosticators tend to leave out, here, is the market forces which operate on technology. Most people don’t like completely new interfaces; that means a lot of learning for marginal benefit. Far preferable are modifications to existing tools, so that the amount of learning requires is in proportion to the benefit received. An extra button or two is a small price to pay for new capabilities; having to learn all-new muscle memories for mostly old capabilities and some new ones is a price which is usually too large.

In many cases there is also the issue of interoperability. Computers benefit tremendously from backwards compatibility, but so do tools. A drill which cannot take normal drill bits renders one existing collection of drill bits worthless. Or worse, drill bits which can’t be chucked into one’s drill collection renders one’s drill collection worthless—and one generally as more money in the drills than in the bits.

These are powerful forces which tend to make new technology look and feel like old technology wherever possible.

And of course, people don’t like going out of business. Those who already have tools are motivated to improve them in order to stave off replacements—and this often works.

Technology Changes, Human Beings Don’t

Another place where prognosticators often fall down is that the human beings who are served by technology don’t change. We still have two eyes, two hands, are social, need to eat and sleep, etc.

So for example people look at the steering wheel, see that it’s been around for a long time, and think “that’s due for a change!” What they don’t consider is the problem at hand: we need a control interface to a car which translates fairly large movements into fairly small movements (for precision) while still allowing large movements, but where large movements are impossible to do by accident. This interface needs to control one dimension (left-to-right), should be usable for long periods of time without fatigue, and should be operable without looking at it. The steering wheel does all these things and does them well. Joysticks, nobs, and other such video-game replacements do at least one of these things poorly. It is of course possible that other sorts of interface will be made that can do the job just as well, but how much better is it possible to do the job, given the limitations of human physiology?

There’s a related example in 3D movies. Some people take 3D as the next obvious step, since silent movies to talkies went well and black-and-white to color went well and low-definition to high-definition went well. But what they miss is that all of these things made movies more realistic. Stereoscopic 3D information gives us distance information—and for typical movies these distances are almost always wrong for our viewing. Granted, they would probably be about right for The Secret of Nimh (which is about mice) in a 50″ TV about 10′ away—if the director would refrain from close-up shots. If you watch a movie, you will realize that there is almost no configuration of movie shots and TV size/location that will make the distance information to the characters correct for the viewer. Worse, if it were, instead of an immersive world of photographs, you’d have a window you’re looking through onto a stage play. The Nintendo 3DS had this problem, with its tiny screen—looking at it one had the feeling of watching a tiny animated diorama. It was novel, but not really interesting. The problems here are that the human being is simply not being taken into account.

Which is why, incidentally, the filming of 3D movies using two cameras at approximately eye-distance apart has all but been abandoned. Instead, 3D is (essentially) painted into a scene in post-processing by artists, who artistically fake the 3D to make it look good when viewed. I’m told that this can really help with scenes that are very dark, making it possible to distinguish dark grey blurs from a black background. This is adapting the technology to the realities of the human being, which is why it’s actually successful. But it’s also quite expensive to do, which greatly limits the appeal to viewers since it translates into much higher ticket prices.

Better Implementation Often Trumps A Better Idea

This is one of the more under-appreciated aspects of technological change. A mediocre idea implemented well is often superior to a good idea implemented in a mediocre way. I’m not just referring to actual fabrication; ideas for technology are themselves developed. Mediocre ideas which are developed well can produce better results than good ideas which are not much developed.

Perhaps the best example of this I can think of is the x86 processor. It has what is called a Complex Instruction Set. This is in contrast to the ARM processor which has a Reduced Instruction Set. (These give rise to the acronyms CISC and RISC.) The x86 processor was developed during the days when CISC was popular because computer programs were largely hand-coded in machine instructions. The complex instruction sets saved the programmers a lot of time. The trade-off was that it took far more silicon to implement all of the instructions, and this resulted in slower CPUs. After the advent of higher level languages and compilers, the idea of RISC was born—since a program was generating the machine instructions anyway, who cares how hard a time it had? The trade-off was that the compiler might have to do more work, but the resulting CPU used far less silicon and could be much faster (or cheaper, or both). In the modern environment of all programs being compiled, RISC is clearly the better approach to computing. And yet.

Because Intel CPUs were popular, Intel had a ton of money to throw at the engineering of their chips. AMD, who also manufactured x86 processors, did too. So RISC processors were only a little faster and actually significantly more expensive. And then something interesting happened—Intel and AMD figured out how to make processors such that they didn’t need nearly so much silicon to implement the complex instruction set they had. In effect what they did was to introduce a translation layer that would translate the complex instruction set into a series of “microcode” instructions—basically, internal RISC instructions. So now, with x86 processors being interally RISC machines, the penalty paid for supporting a RISC instruction set is an inexpensive translation layer in hardware—a pentalty which generally isn’t paid unless the complex instructions are actually used, too. And compilers generally don’t bother with most of the complex instructions.

The result is that ARM processors have a small advantage in not having to do translation of opcodes to an internal microcode, but this usually takes only 1 step out of the 12 execution steps in an x86 pipeline anyway. And Ahmdal’s law should always be born in mind—the maximum improvement an optimization can produce is the total execution time of the process being optimized. That is, eliminating 1 step out of 12 can produce at most a 1/12th improvement.

But then modern Intel and AMD CPUs also do something interesting—they cache the results of decoding instructions into microcode. So this decode penalty is only paid for code that isn’t executed very often anyway. The most performance-critical code—tight loops—don’t pay the decode penalty. As I said, a better implementation often trumps a better idea.

(People familiar with x86 versus ARM may point to the difference in performance on mobile phones, but this is really about what the respective CPUs were designed for. x86 processors are designed for achieving the maximum efficiency possibly at high power draws, while ARM CPUs are designed to achieve the maximum efficiency at low power draws. ARM CPUs are therefore better in very low power draw environments but simply cannot be scaled up to high power draw environments. There is no power configuration possible in which an ARM processor will come close to the single-threaded performance of an x86 processor. The tradeoff they make for the low-power efficiency is that they cannot be scaled up. This has nothing to do with technical superiority of either x86 or ARM processors, but the fact that they’re designed for extremely different workloads and environments. The thing which Intel and AMD need to be careful about is that the amount of processing power which they can provide at 15W, 35W, or even 60W may simply be far more than is necessary in a laptop (since the tasks which laptops are asked to do is becoming more standardized as the development of software slows down), at which point ARM might eat their lunch not because of technical superiority but because of its capabilities becoming a better match for a changing problem-space.)

The Future of Cars According to (Disney in) 1958

In the 1950s, Walt Disney started a television show in order to fund the theme park he wished to build called Disneyland. In 1958, this television show featured a segment called The Magic Highway, which discussed the future of cars:

I am very fond of historical projections of the future, and this is an especially well-done one. Though I should mention that one bit of the future it predicted—larger, straighter highways designed for faster travel—was not much of a prediction as the US interstate highway system was already underway (it began in 1956).

There are some things which are remarkably common to predictions of the future which can be seen in this movie too. One is the way that user interfaces are either predicted to change when they won’t or remain static when they will change. In this case the computer which drives the car is given its destination via punch card. (In another scene data is entered via toggle switches.) On the other hand, the steer wheel was replaced by by joysticks, which are actually a terrible interface for driving a car. By contrast, steering wheels are actually a very good interface for driving a car, so there’s no real reason to replace them.

There is also the assumption that energy will be free and consequently used in the most lavish of fashions (like heating highways to dry them off from the rain). I think that was related to the expectation of the coming nuclear age and how it will provide almost unlimited power. That was still highly optimistic since at a minimum one needs to maintain an electrical distribution grid, and wires have to be sized to the electricity they’re carrying, which means copper or aluminum fabrication and distribution.

But details like distribution aside, the predictions that nuclear power would result in free power never panned out for the simple reason that the nuclear part of a nuclear power plant is actually a small fraction of the work which goes on in a nuclear power plant. At their heart, nuclear power plants are giant hot-water heaters. The electricity is produced in turbines which are turned by steam. The only significant difference between a nuclear power plant and a coal power plant (or oil, natural gas, etc.) is what heats the water.

Anyway, check it out. It’s very interesting to see the ways in which futurians are often wrong and sometimes right.

The Three Endings of Clue

If you’re not familiar with the movie Clue, it’s based on the boardgame of the same name (known as Cluedo in Britain). It’s not the greatest movie ever made, but it’s a lot of fun. I own it both on DVD and Blu-ray and recommend it if you like murder mysteries and fun.

A curious feature of the movie is that it was filmed with three different endings. Movie theaters would be given one of the three endings, so viewers would see a different ending depending on which movie theater they saw it in. However, this posed something of a problem for the VHS version of the movie.

Technically, of course, it was possible that they could have made three copies of the VHS cassettes, but probably would have been prohibitively expensive. Thousands of people see the copy of a movie sent to a theater, whereas each VHS cassette would have cost $15 or $20 at the time. The labor involved in shuffling the cassettes couldn’t have been worth it.

Whatever the reason, three different copies of the movie was not the approach taken by the makers of the VHS. And since VHS was a linear medium, it wasn’t possible to shuffle the endings. So the of the endings were presented as possible endings, while the third was presented as “what really happened”. A nice touch is that this information is presented in the sort of text cards that one might see in a silent film; it fits nicely with the setting in the 1950s (desipte that being long after the era of silent films, curiously) and with the fact hat it’s a movie based on a board game. (Which would be ludicrous except that the movie doesn’t take itself seriously, though not in the modern wink-at-the-audience way which we all know and hate.)

About ten years after the release of Clue (the movie), DVDs hit the market. Unlike VHS cassettes, DVDs did not have to be linear and it became possible to play one of the theatrical endings at random. And the first DVD of Clue that I bought indeed had that option, though thankfully it also had (and defaulted to) the option to play the VHS ending, i.e. the three endings together with the title cards identifying the first two endings as possibilities. I’m thankful because I far prefer that ending; it’s in keeping with the fun and tone of the rest of the movie.

But this raises the interesting question: if VHS hadn’t had the technical limitation of being purely sequential, would the three-in-one ending ever have been made? There’s no way to know, of course, but it points to a larger issue of providence and limitations. Limitations often force people to be creative in ways they would not have been without them. Perhaps the best example of this I can think of is Star Wars episodes IV-VI. When one compares them to episodes I-III, when George Lucas, now very rich, had (effectively) no limits, he did much worse work.

The issue of providence is probably fairly obvious, but we as finite creatures don’t see the big picture; we chafe at our limitations. But our limitations often guide us to the work which we’re supposed to be doing. The things which frustrate us are often safety rails. Not so much that they protect our health—though they occasionally do that—but they protect the good work which we’ve been given to do. This is all the more helpful because we so rarely recognize that work until long after it was (all but) forced on us. If we even recognize it then. Something to remember is that God loves Beetles.

 

Moana Is Kind of OK as a Movie

Having a two year old daughter I’ve had to watch “boana” a bunch of times now, and I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s just not a good movie. It’s kind of OK. It’s mostly pretty. It’s got a few halfway decent songs. That’s about as much as can be said for it.

The first problem is that it’s not uniformly pretty. Why is it that Disney animators can’t draw adult males any more? I heard that some Polynesians were offended that Maui was drawn as an obese semi-giant-semi-dwarf, and their point is quite fair, since Maui looked bad. But this wasn’t just Maui, it was also Moana’s father. It was true of the father in Brave, too. I’m sure that somebody will say that they’re not ugly, they’re stylized. I’d consider accepting that if:

  1. This was how females were drawn, too.
  2. They didn’t look ugly.

Frankly, it’s probably largely laziness. Animation has gotten ever-more expensive over time with less money becoming available to it, and so it’s gotten noticeably worse over time as the animators have to come up with ways to save time and money.

I suspect it’s also partially that Disney has given up on its cartoons being for the whole family. Since they’re now primarily advertisements for dolls, backpacks, etc., there’s no point in making them enjoyable by the whole family. They’re only supposed to appeal you very young girls, and very young girls probably don’t pay much attention to father figures in movies. To most children’s story writers, parents are at best a necessary evil.

This almost makes talking about the story of Moana pointless, since it’s largely just an excuse for set pieces, but I had to watch the thing so I feel entitled to talk about it anyway. What I find most disappointing is that it’s an adventure story with no hero.

Moana is the closest thing that one finds to a hero in the story but she’s just not competent enough to be a hero. Granted, she’s a child, but that’s just the problem—the protagonist is someone who can’t be expected to be competent.

Or rather, they throw her into circumstances she’s not competent enough for. “Competence” does, after all, take an object—it only makes sense when you specify what one is competent at. They put Moana into circumstances which require a skilled adult and have her succeed either by sheer luck or outright cheating. For example, never having sailed before, Moana is able to sail a boat on the high seas. There’s no reason given for this, she just succeeds. And the wind is, for some reason, always at her back.

When she finally flips over the boat—many hours (or days?) after she should have—the ocean then just puts her where she should be. Why it didn’t do this at first is never even hinted at. You can get away with that on a wise character who has the best interests of the character at heart, but nowhere in the movie is the ocean portrayed as wise. Which reminds me—where are any of the other gods? Specifically, where is the god of the sea? This is a theoretically polytheistic story and yet the events of the story happen in a vacuum. This is just nothing like the actual mythology one gets within polytheistic cultures.

Then we get to Maui, who makes no sense and even less sense when considered as a demigod. Leaving aside the ridiculousness of doing various things for humans in order to feel wanted, he would have been celebrated. There’s a ridiculous scene where Maui admits that everything he did for humans was to try to make them love him, but it was never enough. The amount of cussing that would be require to convey how nonsensical this is would be tedious, so I’ll just omit it, but seriously, what? After Maui did the various feats that he did there would be shrines to him everywhere. Polytheists are only too willing to worship anything they thought brought them benefits and might bring them more.

Oh, and Maui was intending to imprison Moana in a cave on his Island in order to steal her boat. There will certainly be gods and demi-gods like this in polynesian mythology, but they don’t come round to doing the right thing after a pep talk. Consider how utterly gratuitous imprisoning her in a cave without food was—he could easily have just stolen her boat—at least as far as he knew at the time. He was basically just murdering her for fun. Which he did again by throwing her into the ocean. And what’s with him trying to jump off the boat—just a few minutes before, he explained that he needed the boat because he can do everything but float.

Oh, and when Moana rescued Maui from Tamatoa, she lifted him up and half carried him out of his cave. This is another example of outright cheating in order to make her competent. Moana probably weighs somewhere in the vicinity of 100 pounds. Probably less, but let’s be really generous and say 100. Maui is going to weight somewhere around 400 or 500 pounds. Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt that say that he’s stylized and only weighs around 300 pounds. A 100 pound teenage girl is not going to be able to lift or carry a 300 pound limp weight. Even if Maui were helping a little bit, he would just crush Moana. She’s had no real physical training and her exercise had all been running around and climbing. I’ve no doubt that she can do a lot of pullups and has great endurance, but a 300 pound weight would just crush her. It makes no sense at all that they had Moana carry Maui out of the cave. The weaker companion rescuing the stronger companion who just got beaten in combat and was soon to be killed has been done many times. The right way to do it is to have the weaker one distract the opponent (which, granted, she did) giving the hero time to retreat. When it’s done well the hero uses his remaining strength to save the weaker one too, making them an actual team. Instead, for no discernible reason, Moana picks up things she shouldn’t be able to pick up.

And I should point out that this isn’t a male-vs-female thing. The boy in Last Action Hero never carried Arnold Schwarzenegger.

And then we come to Te-Ka. Given that Te-Ka is actually Te-Fiti, her placement on a barrier island simply makes no sense. My eight year old son also noticed this. Why, when Maui steals the heart of Te-Fiti, did Te-Ka instantly arise on a barrier island? And, for that matter, why did Maui try to directly fight Te-Ka rather than just, say, turning around and going a different way?

Which then brings up the question, where did the rest of the barrier island come from? Why was there even a barrier island? With Te-Fiti gone, why was Te-Ka protecting the worthless rock where Te-Fiti used to be? And how was the rest of the barrier island formed in a ring? There’s no indication that anyone ever tried to sail to where Te-Fiti had been, so why did Te-Ka produce lava there to hard into rock? It was obviously necessary that the barrier island form a ring around where Te-Fiti had been or Moana could have just sailed around it, but there’s just no in-plot explanation for this.

For that matter, why did the writers think that the barrier island was even necessary? It would have made more sense and solved more problems if Te-Ka had arisen on the Island which Te-Fiti had been. In particular this would have solved the problem of: why didn’t Maui fly over Te-Ka? Heck, why didn’t Maui fly around Te-Ka? Moana was able to outsail Te-Ka sideways. Why would a shape-shifting trickster have full-frontal-assault as plan A?

And finally, why do girl-power movies always have to have the power involved being—not actual power—but willful stupidity? Moana decides that she’s going to return the heart on her own. (Not that it matters, but why doesn’t she ask the sea to give her the heart again? Why on earth is the pacific ocean only 30 feet deep where she is, miles away from any island?) She then—predictably—fails and is saved by Maui. So much for empowerment. Defeating a giant lava monster is not something which one mortal on a boat is going to be able to do—incidentally, someone at Disney really should have looked up the difference between sail boats and motor boats—so why did Moana decide to do it? This doesn’t make her strong, it makes her dumb. If she had tried to recruit some allies, even unwitting ones—for example, luring the kakamura in to fight Te-Ka—that would have made vastly more sense. Had she recruited the ocean to help her get past Te-Ka, that too would have made vastly more sense. Anything which could at least possibly have worked would have made vastly more sense.

Alternatively, Disney could have scaled down the lava monster so that Moana at least had a chance of defeating it herself.

It’s not that I necessarily disagree with the writer’s goals—whatever they were—the problem is that what they wrote served no possible purpose. It just didn’t hang together at all.

Incidentally, who thought it would be a good idea to have the climax of the movie in slow motion and to have Moana sing a really dumb song where a mortal reassures a goddess that being a lava monster doesn’t define her? Seriously? The tone of this is almost perfectly wrong.

Oh, and as for the ending—who on earth is going to let their toddler sit unguarded on the pontoon of a boat going at fifteen or twenty knots?

Man Was Always Small

In Orthodoxy, Chesterton has a great line:

It is quite futile to argue that man is small compared to the cosmos; for man was always small compared to the nearest tree.

To give context:

Herbert Spencer would have been greatly annoyed if any one had called him an imperialist, and therefore it is highly regrettable that nobody did. But he was an imperialist of the lowest type. He popularized this contemptible notion that the size of the solar system ought to over-awe the spiritual dogma of man.

It’s something I’ve seen various versions of from contemporary atheists. The most common is that the universe is so large that even if God existed he couldn’t possible care what human beings do. Other versions tend to run along the lines that the universe is so big our petty concerns can’t matter.

Chesterton’s point is a very good one—that man never took his importance from his size relative to the world. It reminds me greatly of a quote from C.S. Lewis in his book The Problem of Pain:

It would be an error to reply that our ancestors were ignorant and therefore held pleasing illusions about nature which the progress of science has since dispelled… even from the beginnings, men must have got the same sense of hostile immensity from a more obvious source. To prehistoric man the neighboring forest must have been infinite enough, and the utterly alien and infest which we have to fetch from the thought of cosmic rays and cooling suns, came snuffing and howling nightly to his very doors… It is mere nonsense to put pain among the discoveries of science. Lay down this book and reflect for five minutes on the fact that all the great religions were first preached, and long practiced, in a world without chloroform.

Of course, few atheists will put the idea this baldly—atheists rarely state any of their ideas without dressing them up a bit, or simply failing to consider how they relate to their other ideas, in my experience—but that one meets this sort of thing at all is very curious. One of the problems which some atheists seem to have in relating to older ideas is that they can’t relate to older peoples.

To the degree that there are solutions to this, I suspect that they are largely going to be narrative. The modern narrative is one of being utterly cut off from our ancestors. And yet we’re also seeing counter-narratives emerging; the revival of older traditions, the preference for older ways of doing things. It’s not material whether the putatively older ways of doing things are in fact accurate to how they used to be done, what matters to this purpose is whether they are believed to be in continuity. When they are—when people believe themselves to be in continuity with their ancestors—that’s when they’ll stop seeing their ancestors as aliens and see them as human, instead.

The Unpleasantness At the Bellona Club by Dorothy L. Sayers

Following my reviews of Whose Body?, Clouds of Witness, and Unnatural Death, I re-read the fourth Lord Peter Wimsey mystery, The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club. This time old General Fentiman is discovered dead in his high backed chair in the smoking room of the gentleman’s club called the Bellona Club. I believe that “Bellona” comes from the Latin root bellum, meaning war, as all the members seem to have been in the army and served in some war or other.

Old General Fentiman’s death would have been remarkable only for life imitating art—there were (apparently) plenty of jokes at the time about someone dying in a gentleman’s club and no one noticing because of the rules against disturbing other members—except for the very curious circumstance that his aged sister had died at about the same time and the terms of her will left her fortune to her brother only if he was alive at the time of her decease; should she have outlived him her fortune was to go to a distant relative to lived with her. The general’s family solicitor happens to be the same Mr. Murbles who is the family solicitor of the Wimseys, and he asks Lord Peter to investigate to see if a definite time of death can be established for the old man.

The mystery takes a few twists and perhaps the same number of turns and introduces a new friend of Lord Peter—the sculptor Marjorie Phelps—who we’ll meet again in Strong Poison. It’s a bit less conventional than the first three Lord Peter mysteries, but I recommend The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club. An exploration of English upper class society in the 1920s is always interesting. Incidentally, the title is partially a reference to this—people keep referring to the old General’s death as “unpleasant” or “the unpleasantness” so often Lord Peter starts remarking on it. It’s a decent mystery, and though not one of Sayers’ best, it’s quite enjoyable.


If you like murder mysteries and especially if you like Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey stories, you might like murder mystery, The Dean Died Over Winter Break.

tddowb


(If you haven’t read the story and don’t want spoilers, stop reading here.)

(In what follows, I discuss the structure and execution of The  Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club with the purpose of learning from it because it is a good story. Everything I say should be understood as an attempt to learn from a master mystery writer. Criticism should in no way be taken as disparagement, as I dearly love the Lord Peter stories.)

The first and most curious thing to note about The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club is that it is really two (connected) stories. The first half of the book is the story of trying to figure out when old General Fentiman died. The second half is trying to figure out who murdered him. This is an interesting choice in that the first half of the book feels less important than it really is. It also has the effect of shifting who the important characters are halfway through the book. In the beginning it was Major Fentiman and the mysterious Oliver. Well, the somewhat mysterious Oliver. He’s not really a very plausible character on one’s first read through the book, and I think it’s nearly impossible to suspend one’s disbelief about him on subsequent read-throughs. It doesn’t help that Lord Peter doesn’t believe in Oliver either. On the other hand, this does give the book a twist, and it gives the characters a chance to act in ways they might not have had murder been suspected from the beginning.

Now, this sort of twist can be done in one of two main ways:

  1. The solution to the early mystery is provided by solving the murder.
  2. The solution to the early mystery leads us to the mystery of the murder.

The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club is a variant of #2. Technically the early mystery (when General Fentiman died) is solved shortly before the murder mystery is discovered, but Lord Peter has arranged things so that the exhumation of the body proceeds anyway and the murder is discovered. Upon consideration, this may actually be a third way for this twist to be done:

3. The sleuth investigates the early mystery as a pretext for investigating what he believes is a murder but can’t yet prove is.

Once it is discovered that General Fentiman was poisoned, it is revealed that Lord Peter expected it and wrangled the exhumation of the body specifically to prove it. I do wish that Lord Peter wasn’t quite so subtle about it, though, as the early investigation doesn’t feel connected to the murder investigation, at least on my first two readings. So when Inspector Charles Parker congratulates Wimsey on having handled the case masterfully, it feels a little un-earned.

Which brings up the subject I find very interesting of the good Inspector. This is the second to last book in which he plays a major role, and he only plays that roll in the second half of it. Since the early mystery about when old General Fentiman died was not a police matter, Parker had nothing to do with it. Now, one could chalk this up to the limitations of a police officer as a friend to a sleuth, but this need not be the case at all. Charles Parker was a good friend of Lord Peter; the two could have discussed Lord Peter’s case over cigars and wine at Lord Peter’s apartment. And yet Sayers didn’t do that. And in the very next book we get introduced to Harriet Vane, with whom Lord Peter falls instantly in love. (In fact, I believe he fell in love with her prior to the first page of Strong Poison.) I can’t help but wonder if Sayers tired of Charles Parker, or simply felt he was deficient as a foil for Lord Peter. In any event, he had given her good service and she in turn gave him a good retirement—he would be promoted to Chief Inspector and marry Lady Mary Wimsey.

I think that part of the problem with Charles Parker was that Sayers never really let him become interesting. She gave him a trait which had the potential to be very interesting, but didn’t commit to it. I mean, specifically, that he read theology in his spare time. So far, so good. The problem is that he didn’t seem to learn anything from it. He never talked about it—even when it would be relevant. I don’t think that Sayers would have had any difficulty in writing such a character since she was a religious and well educated woman. Yet still, she didn’t. For whatever reason she seemed most fond, and most comfortable, with writing non-religious or even irreligious characters. At least intelligent ones. She had no real trouble with the middling or unintelligent religious characters. The one exception I can think of being a priest in Unnatural Death. He was very well done, though he only appeared for a page or two.

Of course, the lesson seems to be a rather obvious one: always commit to your characters. Whatever their traits, commit. And if you can’t commit to a character, pick a different character.

Speaking of characters, like Clouds of Witness, there’s an extremely unpleasant character in The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club. Which, I suppose, does at least fit in with the title. I’m speaking, of course, of Captain George Fentiman. I suppose that he was to some degree a commentary on World War I, but I found the constant fighting with his wife—and nearly everyone else—was wearying.

I don’t mean to suggest that such an unpleasant character serves no purpose, however. Captain George was a suspect, and so his aggressiveness and anger do serve to cast suspicion upon him. For that matter, Farmer Grimmethorpe was a minor suspect in Clouds of Witness. But in neither case were they really developed as suspects. Grimethorpe was given a good alibi, and in any event he would have been far more of a suspect had the victim been beaten to death, not shot at close quarters. Simlarly, Captain George would have been far more of a suspect had old General Fentiman been, well, shot at close quarters, not poisoned.

Further, Captain George pretty clearly had no opportunity to murder old General Fentiman. It is hardly plausible that he kept a fatal dose of digitalin on hand should he happen to run into his grandfather on the street in a place he would never have expected to meet him and to then somehow talk the old man into taking it in a place (a taxi cab) where it is most unnatural to eat or drink anything.

I think that when it comes to lessons for writing murder mysteries, if one is going to give a character traits which make them unpleasant to read about, it is best to make them a highly credible suspect. This can also make some tension where the detective would be only too happy for the unpleasant character to be the murderer, which makes them second guess evidence against the character because they are worried about confirmation bias. It can also serve to make the detective more virtuous when he exonerates someone he has come to dislike. At the same time this can become a trap of making a suspect too obvious so that he isn’t suspected; which can make for a good twist where the unpleasant, angry man did actually commit the murder.

(Incidentally, a complication one doesn’t see too often is an accessory after the fact who is the brains of the operation. One sees often enough an angry man who does the brutal work collaborating with an intelligent man who designs the murder for him, but an intelligent accomplice who enters only to clean the murder up is, I think, uncommon.)

When it comes to the murder in The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, I’m not sure what to make of it. It is established very early that the old general went to Dr. Penberthy shortly before he died, and therefore that Dr. Penberthy had basketfuls of opportunity to poison him. And of course as a doctor he had ample access to digitalin. The only thing he lacked was a motive. And the motive he had was comprehensible enough, though it does feel rather a lot like coincidence. Granted, an explanation is given, though it’s one that’s guessed at. Being old General Fentiman’s doctor, he heard about the family quarrel that would result in Lady Dormer’s money going to Ann Dorland, and so he made her acquaintance and seduced her. But this is still a bit far fetched since the old man never spoke of his sister and I don’t see why he’d take the doctor into his confidence on a matter too painful for him to ever speak of. Especially since he blamed his sister and didn’t feel any guilt he needed to try to rid himself of.

Granted, it’s often a good idea for the murderer to be connected to the deceased in a manner that is not generally suspected. Still, Penberthy just never felt like he was enough of a character to me to justify the secret engagement. I think it’s that he never showed up except in his official capacity as a doctor. This puts him in the same class a butlers and other servants; one fails to suspect him not because one is misled by a clever disguise but because one knows nothing about the character at all, and as mysteries go, everyone whom one knows nothing about is interchangeable.

The obvious exception to the above is where one learns about the culprit under a different identity, learning more and more, until one starts to suspect the service characters of being the other identity. I’m talking about plots where long lost cousin Ernesto, who will inherit, took a job as the butler (having shaved his famous mustaches) in order to poison his wealthy relative and intends to inherit from afar and fire the domestic staff so that they won’t recognize him when he takes possession. That sort of thing is tricky, but can be made to work. Agatha Christie did it well in Murder in Mesopotamia. Chesterton also did it well in The Sins of Prince Saradine, though a short story has different rules than a novel does.

This does not apply to Penberthy, though, since he is revealed to have been Ann Dorland’s fiance on the same page that it was revealed that she had a fiance.

I’m also a bit dissatisfied with Ann Dorland’s appearance at Marjorie Phelp’s apartment. When Lord Peter asked Marjorie about Ann, she barely knew the girl. That makes Marjorie a strange confidant to fly to when Ann thinks she’s about to be accused of murder.

On the other hand, Ann Dorland is a pleasingly interesting character. Intelligent but innocent, we meet her in the position of having made many mistakes but is able to learn from them quickly with a bit of guidance. Her likability redeems many of the circumstances surrounding how we meet her and I think ultimately pulls the story together. In that last part it’s especially important to notice that the character, though largely a plot point in the beginning of the story, becomes a real character with real personality in the end. There’s a good lesson in that, which is to make sure to give even minor characters their own personality. It doesn’t have to be a lot, and more importantly it doesn’t even have to be at he beginning. One shouldn’t push that too far, but when the reader learns about a character’s personality, their memory fills it in for them earlier in the book, too. (It is important that the author know who the character is early on, though, so that the character is consistent when he is finally developed.)

And in the book we come once again to the murder committing suicide rather than facing justice. It’s not really the suicide that I dislike so much, but the way that Lord Peter approves of it and worse, helps it happen. Granted, Lord Peter isn’t Christian and so it’s not out of character for him, but I don’t like having my nose rubbed in how he isn’t Christian. I suspect that’s what really gets me about it. It’s one thing to enjoy the virtues which pagans have, but it’s quite another to have to look at their vices.

Most of Life is Unknown

We live so awash in stories and news that we get a very skewed perspective on how much of real life is know to more than a few people and God. What got me thinking about this was watching the following song:

It was the theme song used by a sketch comedy group at the university I went to for my undergraduate degree. They were called Friday Night Live (as an homage to the TV show of similar name) and would put on a show about three times a semester. They had apparently been hugely popular when they started, which was at least a few years before I attended. I was in the rival sketch comedy group, Pirate Theater. At the beginning of my freshman year the attendance at our shows was lower than that of Friday Night Live, but by the end of my senior year the positions had reversed. Our audiences were 3-4 times larger and theirs were smaller even than our audiences had been in my freshman year.

A few years ago I ran into someone who was currently a student at the university and I asked about the shows. He said that Pirate Theater was still reasonably popular but Friday Night Live no longer existed. In fact, he had never even heard of it.

There had been a reasonably friendly rivalry between the two shows, and it turned out that our efforts brought success, in a sense. I don’t think that any of us pirates wanted to kill of Friday Night Live, and ultimately I suspect that it was the quality of their writing which did them in. For whatever reason (I never wrote sketches for FNL, so I couldn’t say what it was like to do so), Pirate Theater managed to attract far more of the skilled writers on campus. It also didn’t help that FNL insisted on having an intermission and hiring a local band to play in it. I think in all the time I was there—and I didn’t miss an FNL show all four years—they had one band that I didn’t leave the auditorium to get away from. Really, really cheap bands tend to be so inexpensive for a reason.

As you might imagine, I was never alone outside the doors when the band was playing. And they were always ear-hurtingly loud, too. Adding injury to insult, I suppose.

Towards the end of my senior year, there were probably less than a hundred people attending the Friday Night Live shows. The total number of people who saw their trajectory for those four years I watched it was not very large; the number who remember it now is probably much smaller. And yet the actors did work on their sketches, however little humor was in them. The “turrets family” where the “joke” was that there was a lot of yelling and cussing may not have been entertaining to watch, but it’s no easier to memorize unfunny lines, or to say them at the right time when you’re live on stage. (There was at approximately one of those per show, for all four years, by the way.)

One of the actors was limber and would do physical comedy with a folding chair, getting stuck in it. It wasn’t brilliant physical comedy, and (due to the lack of skilled writing) never really fit into the sketches it was in; one could see it coming a mile away as the sketches it was used in were basically an excuse to do the wacky chair antics. But someone did write the sketch, and people memorized it, and the actor did twist himself through a chair on stage which is not an easy thing to do. And I do have to say that the final time he did it—which was the last FNL show I attended since he graduated the same year I did—was actually kind of funny because it was actually a protracted goodbye dance with the chair, complete with sad music and longing glances.

 

This was all very real; people put real work, went through real happiness and sadness, and now it is mostly forgotten. That is ultimately the fate of (almost) all human endeavors. This was captured quite well, I think by Percy Blythe Shelley in his poem Ozymandias:

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Most things fade from memory far faster, of course. How many people now remember more than a few fragments of Friday Night Live’s sketches? I don’t think I remember more than a few fragments of the Pirate Theater sketches which I wrote, let alone those I merely performed in. I do have a DVD with a collection of the video sketches we did (many of which I’m in), but it’s been quite some time since I watched it.

It may well be longer until I watch it again. In the intervening decade and a half, I’ve gotten a profession, married, bought a house, had three children, published three novels, made a YouTube channel with over 1,973 subscribers, and a whole lot more. As much a I value my memories of my college days, I don’t want to go back in the way that video takes one back.

But the thing is, that’s not a strength. I just don’t have the time and energy for it. But all the things I’ve done since which so occupy me now will also fade in time. Eventually I will die; eventually this house will fall down or be demolished; eventually my children will die. Nothing has any permanence within time.

So the only hope we have is for permanence outside of time. There’s a great metaphor, which Saint Augustine uses in his Confessions, of God, at the end of time, gathering up the shattered moments of our lives and putting them together as a unified whole. And that’s really the only hope we have for any of our lives to be real.

The Death of Rock and Roll With Zarathustra’s Serpent

You may recall my blog post The Death of Rock-n-Roll. After writing it, I invited Zarathustra’s Serpent to talk with me about the subject because he’s studied popular music quite extensively. This is the conversation we had. You can also watch the video on YouTube:

In-Genre Fiction is Dull Outside of It

In an interesting blog post about Pulp writing (such as that of Edgar Rice Borroughs or Robert E Howard) and Japanese Light Novels, Cheah Kai Wai quoted a bit of description from a popular JLN and said about it:

This is from the first chapter Goblin Slayer, a famous dark fantasy series about the eponymous adventurer obsessed with conducting goblin genocide. The text is compact and easy to read, but it is all tell and no show. Phrases like ‘took her breath away’ and ‘taken aback’ lack power, because the sparse descriptions lack emotive power. The sentence ‘No one would tolerate the existence of armed toughs if they were not managed carefully’ feels aimed at the reader instead of being an organic component of the story.

This excerpt is simply a straightforward report of sights and peoples and business functions, revealing nothing substantial about Priestess, the people around her, the town or the rest of the setting.

(The blog post has the quote that this is a comment about, but the particular accuracy is not my point so I’m omitting it for the sake of brevity and hope that you will trust the description is accurate for the sake of argument.)

The thing I’m wondering about is whether the particular example and Japanese Light Novels in general might be suffering not from being poorly written, but from being what I’m going to call genre-referential. (This is something of an extension of ideas I talked about in my earlier post Predictability vs. Recognizability.) What I mean by this is that some stories rely on referencing ideas and patterns established in other stories—generally progenitors in their genre. This sort of referencing makes for great economy of writing, but it also lightens the reading burden for readers who are very familiar with the genre and know what you’re talking about so much that explicit description actually becomes boring.

(As a side note, this can actually make it difficult for people who started with later works in a genre to fully enjoy the original works which defined the genre—since they had nothing to reference and readers were unfamiliar with the genre, they described it in detail which, to a reader already familiar with the genre, is just unnecessary and therefore slow and over-wrought.)

I’ll give an example. Suppose a story started out like this:

“I can’t take this thing any more!” Ian said as he took off the Imperial shock-trooper helmet. “If I get a headache in this after five minutes, how on earth are we going to infiltrate the governor’s palace in this armor?”

“You complain too much,” Duke replied. “At least it’s laser-proof.”

“That doesn’t do you much good, kid, if they pick you up and throw you into a smelting pit,” Ian replied with a sour grin.

No one would mistake this for the beginning of a masterpiece, but at the same time, despite the fact that I have given approximately no description of—well, anything—I suspect that most readers who are at least 30 years old (in the year of our Lord’s incarnation 2018) will still have a fairly vivid idea of what just happened. They will know:

  1. There is an empire run by a ruthless and evil emperor who
  2. dominates the solar system or possibly the entire galaxy
  3. squashing the freedom of all people through it.
  4. The empire has some sort of elite units of soldiers issued full-body armor complete with head-encasing helmets. Basically, storm trooper from Star Wars before we found out that they can’t hit anything.
  5. Ian and Duke are at least somewhat friends, but probably not intimately so
  6. Ian is impetuous and cynical
  7. Duke is idealistic and optimistic

The list goes on; people who have seen a lot of space opera know quite a lot about these characters and the setting. As I said before, this is obviously not the start of a masterpiece, but it could easily be a lot of fun. But imagine what someone who’s never read any space opera would make of this. Really, if you can stretch your imagination that far, not very much. There are a few blanks established to be filled in later, but the only description of the characters given is the single word “kid” which might erroneously suggest that Duke was, in fact, a child.

Now, consider how much is changed and what a person familiar with space opera now knows if I add just two words:

“I can’t take this thing any more!” Ian Tolo said as he took off the Imperial shock-trooper helmet. “If I get a headache in this after five minutes, how on earth are we going to infiltrate the governor’s palace in this armor?”

“You complain too much,” Duke Landwalker replied. “At least it’s laser-proof.”

“That doesn’t do you much good, kid, if they pick you up and throw you into a smelting pit,” Ian replied with a sour grin.

Now you know that this is a parody of Star Wars, but a reasonably subtle parody of Star Wars, not a Mad Magazine style over-the-top parody. More like a toned-down Mel Brooks parody.

But suppose that those weren’t the characters last names. Consider how a few extra lines can signal that this is going in a very different direction than Star Wars:

“I can’t take this thing any more!” Ian said as he took off the Imperial shock-trooper helmet. “If I get a headache in this after five minutes, how on earth are we going to infiltrate the governor’s palace in this armor?”

“You complain too much,” Duke replied. “At least it’s laser-proof.”

“That doesn’t do you much good, kid, if they pick you up and throw you into a smelting pit,” Ian replied with a sour grin.

“True,” Duke said. “But the Dakat is with us. We can’t fail.”

Ian sighed and stared down at his feet, thinking. Then he stretched out his hand, said the words “Dakat Zadum” and an imperial laster-rifle materialized under his hand. Grabbing it before it fell in a long-practiced motion, Ian put it in the empty holster on his armor. He looked up at Ian.

“You’re right,” he said, without enthusiasm.

With the same formula, Ian made a blaster to go with his armor.

“You know I am,” he said. “Now let’s go.”

The fan of space opera is put on notice that while it has some thematic similarities to Star Wars, this is by no means a mere rip-off of star wars. Granted, there are space wizards, but here we have two teammates who are space wizards; there isn’t a master and an apprentice. Though it taps into a similar setting—including high technology versus magic—it’s a very different cast of characters. And the space magic is very different, too. One of the curious questions is whether or not the space wizards will have a magnetically contained plasma torch (*cough* light saber *cough*) or any similar weapon. In fact, there are a whole host of questions in the back of the mind of the studied fan of space opera:

How are the space wizards arranged. Are they independent? Is there a guild? Is there an organization in place to dominate the space wizards since magic is dangerous? What are the limits to the magic? How common is magic? They have lasers which seem to be used as guns, how high is the technology? Obviously if they have high technology too magic can’t be that common, so what is the relationship between the technology users and the magic users?

And so on. There are tons of questions which pop up unbidden because they’ve been brought up by a whole host of previous books and movies answering these things in different ways. But none of these questions are likely to occur to a reader who knows nothing about space opera. While the imagination of the fan of space opera may be flooded by memories of his favorite—and not so favorite—space opera stories, the one who knows nothing about space opera has none of this occupying his attention. So we have two radically different experiences:

For the fan of space opera, we have an economy of language, giving him hints as to what sort of space opera this is, letting him imagine all sorts of possibilities as his mind races to figure out the universe being described.

For the one who knows nothing about space opera, we have a scene in which two people who are not described in any way—except that one regards the other as being younger—talk about how some armor is uncomfortable and partially useful, say some words and guns appear, and (may) be ready to go somewhere to do something.

Now, another criticism which Cheah Kai Wai leveled against the light novel he cited was that it told everything rather than showing it. But consider the above dialog recast into pure exposition:

Ian removed the imperial shock-trooper helmet he had been wearing. He had only been wearing it for a few minutes and he already had a headache. Granted, it was laser-proof but there are a lot of ways to die and no armor can protect you from all of them. Duke, younger and with every bit of of the optimism and idealism that comes would youth, hashed this out with Ian for a bit before Duke pulled out his trump card and pointed out that the Dakat was with them.

There was no arguing the point. The Dakat was with them, so whatever risks they were taking, they could succeed. Wearily, Ian acknowledged the fact by using Dakat magic to materialize a laser rifle and put it in the holster of his armor. Duke smiled, likewise made his own, and they were ready.

Now, this is obviously less energetic than the original, but for someone who loves space opera, I would argue that it is not disqualifyingly so. The lover of a genre is generally in the position of having already read all of the best stuff, and the mediocre stuff is at least evocative of the best the genre has to offer. The lover of space opera is, by this uninspired bit of exposition, at least promised shiny armor, laser rifles, an evil empire, and space wizards. Neither the paint on the wall—long since dried—nor his shoes offer any of these things. And on the plus side, the lover of space opera is not wearied by ornate world-building, most of which he can guess anyway. The writer at least skips to the parts he can’t guess.

To someone who is not a lover of space opera, however, this is profoundly disqualifying. It gives no background, no orientation, no idea of what’s to come, and very little happens in it.

All of this brings us to one of the fundamental problems for writers: figuring out who your reader is. The fundamental problem (which the above quickly written examples are only meant to sketch) is that the same work is radically different when read by someone who lives and breathes a genre than it is when it’s the first dipping of the reader’s toe into the genre. Or even when he’s not yet up to his ankle in it.

Now, I’m not trying to claim that Cheah Kai Wai is wrong in his characterization of Japanese Light Novels. I haven’t read them and it would be absurd to speak with any certainty about them in any case. And I’m not trying to argue with Mr. Rawle Nyanzi’s (low) opinion of Japanese Light Novels either. Both men have obviously read more of these novels than I have (since I’ve read about 3 paragraphs of them so far) and for all I know are experts in the genre. But if they are not experts in the genre, it is interesting that their cogent criticisms may in part come from being outsiders looking in on genre-referential fiction. And since no one is an expert in all genres, we will all have this problem with genre-referential fiction in some genres.

And as writers, there is the problem that genre-referential fiction has a smaller potential base of readers, but we know that they read way more stories in the genre than general readers do.

(There is another problem which comes from what one is looking for in fiction. This post is already very long, so to sketch the problem: when I was young, I craved adventure stories of people becoming heroes. Now that I have three young children and every day is an adventure where I am sometimes literally saving someone’s life—though by  intensely mundane activities like shutting a door at the top of a staircase so the two year old doesn’t fall down, or making sure that the five year old doesn’t microwave a fork and burn our house down—I find that I crave stories about calm, security, and wisdom far more than those of adventure and heroism. It stands to reason, then, that Japanese teenagers on the train home from cram school might crave something different from either. It’s possible, for example, that vivid description would be too much for their over-saturated brains.)