The Ones Who Walk Away

At some point in my schooling–high school or college, I can’t recall anymore–I received an assignment to read Ursula Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” If you like thought-provoking short stories and don’t like spoilers, I suggest taking a moment aside to read it before proceeding further! (CW: child abuse.)

The story describes a utopian city. People there live in joyful leisure, their every need provided for, never suffering more than the slightest knocks of ill fortune. There is but one catch: to sustain this perfection, Omelas keeps an innocent child imprisoned in abject squalor, fed greasy gruel and sometimes kicked for good measure. Every citizen of Omelas knows that the prisoner is there, and that if they are ever released, Omelas’s prosperity will end. Some few members of the city decide that they can not live under such a cruel bargain, and depart for the unknown lands beyond the mountains: the titular ones who walk away.

In the class, we examined Le Guin’s story as a thought exercise about utilitarianism. Do you find Omelas’s arrangement acceptable, as a utilitarian calculation might suggest? Or would you leave the city, believing that no amount of bliss could justify brutalizing a child? Self-righteous as I was (am?), I wrote my little essay response saying of course I would walk away. I couldn’t bear participating in an injustice like that.

It was a thought experiment, a hypothetical, an abstract what-if. I didn’t apply it to my own life. I didn’t stop to think: this is Omelas. I’m living there right now.

Whatever my struggles with money or productivity or mental health, I have it pretty good. I have a house, and food, and the endless entertainments of the Internet. I live (for now?) in a representative democracy where I can freely choose my religion, my friends, my self-expression.

And every one of those privileges is built upon exploitation and injustice.

The land my house rests upon belonged to the First Nations before white settlers seized it. I own the house thanks to a system of city and suburb, mortgage and credit score, that segregates white from black and rich from poor. Beneath even that is the dollar itself, token in the grand lottery of circumstance that randomly decides some people should have more of the good things in life than others, while lying that they “earned” it. The Internet, for all that it was supposed to save us by making information available to all, thrives by turning people’s attention, dreams, and relationships into data to be mined for profit. Its algorithms will happily tell you the Holocaust never happened, and the creators of those algorithms are okay with this. Our ever-worshiped democracy deploys military force against unarmed people and has selected a xenophobic rapist for its highest office.

I’ve seen the prisoner in the cellar. And yet here I still am, enjoying the Festival of Summer.

From a very early age, when I was sharply punished for saying “bad words” I parroted from my parents, I have been a fastidious follower of rules. It was many years before I would so much as jaywalk. And yet I have also always had a churning transgressive streak. I grew up near the St. Louis Arena. For the years when it lay empty, I daydreamed of trespassing there, wandering its deserted corridors and locker rooms. In college I got to toy with this dream of urban exploration by hiking through a ruined brick factory and learning the basics of parkour. Later I became a proponent of free culture in defiance of copyright. Most recently, I have taken an interest in antifas and cop watchers who stand up to hatred and unjust power in ways that are not always polite, tidy, or legal.

It seems I’m more primed for this than I’d have realized. How, then, can I walk away?

Hardcore anarchism would counsel me to literally walk away–abandon my house, my job, my marriage, and live in free and open defiance of all systems of control. I don’t think that’s me either, though. I can’t embrace the kind of nihilistic relativism that would condone so viciously hurting the people I care most about, as a middle finger to systems they didn’t ask to be a part of any more than I did.

But there are other things I can walk away from. I think I’m done with voting as a means of social change; it’s useless when your vote will just be gerrymandered, machine-errored, and Electoral-Colleged into irrelevance. And even the best possible politicians, like beloved St. Bernard, are more than willing to bow to the incoming kleptocrat-in-chief if it might help get their pet projects accomplished. Better to clog the phone lines and block the streets to make one’s desires heard.

I’ve already observed that video games etc. conspire to dull the mind and keep us from reaching our full potential. What then if I walked away from that? I’m forming a plan to live 2017 free from social media (other than blogs like this) and video gaming. I spend hundreds of hours on those things; if I dedicated all that time to writing, design, and social action, what might I achieve? If my leisure were occupied with reading instead of matching sets of three colored gems, what might I learn?

Will you walk with me out of Omelas? How?

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It’s Complicated, or is it Complex?

When you ask someone about their love life, and they say “it’s complicated”–

It’s not only that it’s difficult to explain. “It’s complicated” also has negative connotations, suggesting that things are tangled, confusing, or otherwise problematic.

I suspect we mean the same thing when we talk about the rules of a game or the plot of a media property. “Complicated” suggests the thing’s inscrutable, difficult to explain to someone who’s not already familiar.

When we want to say something similar to “complicated,” but with a more positive spin, we say that a work is “complex.” Complex suggests not so much that it’s incomprehensible or disorienting, but that it’s layered, rewarding close looks and thoughtful reading.

By way of examples, I find A Song of Ice and Fire complicated. There are countless little plot threads that spin up and wander around, to the point where it’s difficult to tell what the “main” story or characters are. Undertalefor all the simplicity of its systems and presentation, is complex; folks write deep, on point, thought-provoking essays unpacking its subtext all the time. Homestuck is complicated; even the recap posts necessary to keep its details straight from one chapter to the next are head-achingly impenetrable. A User’s Guide to the Apocalypse makes that complicated source material into something complex, dialing back the obsessive focus on crufty detail until it becomes a colorful garnish upon a rich, meaningful philosophical exploration.

If it’s not obvious, I don’t claim this is an objective distinction. Others find A Song of Ice and Fire to be comprehensible and enjoyable. I have no doubt that it’s possible to unpack real meaning from the reams of instant message conversations between humans and trolls in Homestuck, which I find superfluous and tiresome. Heck, User’s Guide wouldn’t exist if its author hadn’t connected with Homestuck itself on a profound level.

I am, however, going to tuck this into my vocabulary as a way to sum up the way I feel about something that’s, to grab for a neutral term in the same overall sphere, “not simple.” When I look at a cast of characters, or the moving parts of a game system, do the details complexify the work? Or just add complication?

Furry People, or Sapient Animals?

Over on Ron Edwards’ comics blog (warning: link probably NSFW), a discussion about the 1970s-80s erotica comic Omaha the Cat Dancer led to this gem of insight about anthro-animals:

I’m familiar with the difference between anthropomorphic character in the Stan Sakai sense, where animal form is simply shorthand for character traits or temperament, and also in the “these are actually different species of being” that may or may not uplifted or magical or whatever versions of animalified people or peopleified animals. — oberonthefool

“Oberon” then goes on to term these approaches as “theriomorphic people” and “anthropomorphic animals,” respectively. I realize now that in Pentra, I keep assuming that the latter is what I’m after, when the former might serve my purposes much better.

I’ve always been aware there are different degrees of animal-ness under the broad umbrella of “anthropomorphic animal” fiction. At one extreme would be Watership Down. The rabbits of the Down have a heightened intelligence over the rabbits we know, giving rise to sophisticated language and culture. But in all other respects, they’re rabbits through and through: they’re rabbit-sized, lack hands capable of fine manipulation, and eat and mate and crap exactly like real-world rabbits do. At the other extreme might be the sort of “cat girls” you see in trashy anime or visual novels, which are basically ordinary people with cat ears and tails attached. (“Ordinary people” with the bizarre anatomical proportions common to such things, anyway.) A setting like Redwall wouild lie somewhere in the middle. Its characters do human-like things such as building structures of wood and stone, but their features are depicted as entirely animal, no human-like faces in sight.

What I didn’t realize until reading Oberon’s comment, though, is that there’s not simply a sliding scale at work here, with “human-like” on one end and “animal-like” on the other. There are actually two philosophical approaches to the idea of characters depicted as part human, part animal, that operate on very different assumptions.

I’ve always defaulted to the Redwall mode, that of “anthropomorphic animals,” not noticing the possibility of an alternative. That scheme tends to a lot of world-building detail, defining the places of all these different species in the world culturally and ecologically. When the inevitable questions arise, like “how did so many different evolutionary branches reach sapience?” or “what happens when a tiger-person and a gazelle-person try to have children?”, those are legitimate topics to ponder. The rabbit hole* leads ever deeper from there. For the Pentra collaborative storytelling game, I’ve sketched out matters like “are there non-anthro horses and rabbits in this world?”, because, well, that’s what you do for a furry setting, right?

The thing is, my answers to those questions have become more and more hand-wavey as I realize they get in the way more than they help. On the matter of inter-species reproduction, for instance: “Well, biologically it doesn’t work, but magic that allows it is both very common and a little unpredictable. So it’s not unusual to see a wolf and a badger get together and have lemur children, or whatever.” In other words, a wizard does it. Which is of course absurd, as soon as you think about it for more than a moment. But the alternative—making a verisimilitudinous set of rules for how things work—would inevitably shut someone down. “This story’s about a lynx family, you can’t play an armadillo…”

But there’s another way to come at it, exemplified by the aforementioned Omaha, Webcomics like Better Days and Original Life by Jay Naylor, and so on. These works aren’t overly concerned with the mechanics of animalism. Rather, the assumption is that the characters are people first and foremost. Human beings, not voles and squid. The animal traits help characters stand out from one another visually and prime us to expect certain character traits (slyness for a fox, e.g.), expectations the narrative can consciously play to or subvert. The dialogue and action might acknowledge the physics of the thing, but only on a superficial level, and often tongue in cheek: a startled catperson’s tail puffing up, an avian character having the last name “Byrd,” etc. This gives the creator freedom to assign whatever species they’d like to each character without any particular gymnastics about how it all works. The animal visages form a filter over a fundamentally human story.

The worldbuilding-heavy approach has its place, of course. Kurt Busiek’s The Autumnlands, or Redwall for that matter, succeed in part by the loving detail they impart on different species, their physical attributes, cultures, and history. When I’m writing stories in the Pentra setting, I have no intention of erasing all the thought I’ve put into species’ respective territories, flavors of magic, and so on. But I now realize that when it comes to a participatory thing like the Pentra game, those are the kinds of creative constraints that stifle rather than inspire. Any given group sitting down to spin a tale in its framework can create mythic or fabled personalities like Br’er Rabbit and Reynard the Fox; species that work more like ethnic groups than taxonomic divisions, like in Jay Naylor’s work; or devise their own cultural and physical setting detail. Those are only possible within the same framework if the game itself assumes an agnostic stance on the furry hypothesis.


* If I may employ a trite turn of phrase for its humor value, here

 

Review: On Basilisk Station, by David Weber

I’m gonna say this straight up: Honor Harrington is a Mary Sue. At least in On Basilisk Station. Spoilers ahead…

I don’t mean that she’s a self-insert, or that she’s stunningly beautiful and has every possible magical power. She’s not that blatant. But she is one of those eye-rolling characters who has no discernible character flaws, never makes a mistake, has privileges no other character gets, and receives the respect and admiration of almost every single character in the book even when it makes no sense.

Our first introduction to Harrington treats us to her treecat companion, Nimitz. While I’m generally in favor of feline companions for characters, and Nimitz is a pleasantly quirky addition to an otherwise serious-minded space opera, the critter has no plot role whatsoever in the book. He’s a status symbol, allowed to pal around with the protagonist despite military regulations because reasons. Perhaps if any other character in the book had such a companion, I’d be cool with it, but HH is the only person ever depicted with a treecat buddy. He’s a special-snowflake marker, nothing more.

Nimitz also kicks off one of the book’s biggest facepalms: Honor’s strained relationship with her executive officer, McKeon. I might have hoped that McKeon, with his dislike of Honor leading to stubborn, passive-aggressive behavior, would be an example of a character not swooning with adoration of the sainted protagonist. But it turns out, well, he resents her because she’s just too awesome and he wishes he was that good. I kid you not. Even the villains have a tendency to get interludes lamenting how HH is troubling them by being such a badass. There’s exactly one character who isn’t doe-eyed over Honor Harrington, and that’s the slacker ship’s doctor, whom the book goes out of its way to show as a terrible person nobody likes anyway. So there’s that.

Not that I can blame the characters themselves, I guess; it’s not like author Weber gave HH any character flaws to speak of. She’s depicted as something of a hardass, which would be interesting if the book weren’t so in love with military discipline and regulation that doing things by the book turns out to be the right answer nine times out of ten. And in those remaining ten percent of situations, Harrington lets things slide a bit anyway. So, not a character flaw: it never hinders her in any noticeable way. She’s said to be bad at math. But since she’s the captain, not an astrogator, she never needs deep math skills; plus, she does sophisticated arithmetic in her head all the time, and sometimes higher-maths stuff by “instinct,” always arriving at the correct answer. Heck, it doesn’t even impede her in her backstory, poor grades in that area of study failing to bring down her class-topping scores across the board. The only other criticism the book levels at her is that she’s unpretty, I guess? Which A.) isn’t particularly relevant in a romance-free space opera, and B.) everybody gapes at her looks anyway, they’re just not described in gushing feminine terms.

Lastly, though HH does get to face some hardship, it’s never on any level her fault. She makes no mistakes, no errors of judgment, no wrong calls on matters of chance. Her ship gets kicked around in war games, demoralizing the crew, but that only happens because higher-ups gave her ship a dubious armament configuration and because she managed to “kill” an enemy flagship with it in the first set of maneuvers, earning the jealousy of the opposing team. Another case of hating her for being too awesome! There’s one field operation where a bunch of soldiers get killed in a trap laid by the enemy, but Honor isn’t in command of that attack, and the other characters quickly absolve her of any fault. And while maybe you could argue that she lost too many crew, took too much damage, in the climactic starship chase, you’d be hard pressed to make a strong case for that reading. It’s pretty clear from the heaps of commendations HH earns for her adventure that she did the absolute best she could with what she had.

It’s not that I want to see the protagonist make pratfalls, or that I begrudge a book having a happy ending. And I did enjoy On Basilisk Station enough to finish reading it. The SF world-building is particularly strong, with just enough technobabble to justify the dramatic space battles in ways that feel internally consistent. But if I’m to read any more of the many novels featuring this character, I need to confirm from someone else who’s read them that Weber lets Harrington off her pedestal at some point. It reads to me like she has a nasty case of Strong Female Protagonist Syndrome—that in an attempt to break gender norms for space opera heroes, Weber forgot that a woman character still needs to feel human. Unlike Honor Harrington, humans sometimes make mistakes, have unpleasant quirks, and have to deal with people simply not liking them.

Sexy Fictions

As most regular readers of this blog would know by now, I won the National Novel Writing Month this year, putting 50,000 words into a rough draft between the start and end of the month. What you don’t know, though (because this is the first I’ve told anyone), is that some 2000 words of that was smut.

Aside from some by any standard quite embarrassing cybersex back in high school and college, it’s the first I’ve ever created something sexually explicit. No doubt that’s in part due to that Catholic upbringing I wrote about earlier. And I certainly don’t make any claim that it’d be worth reading, given the WriMo ethos of quantity over quality added to the intrinsic silliness of most smut and most first efforts. But I certainly found it exciting, and a little liberating!

Much has been made of the USian double standard when it comes to violence vs. sex, in entertainment. It is far easier to find a TV show that will depict a disembowelment or a decapitation than one that will show a penis. I find that particularly strange, given that sexuality is a significant part of most adult lives, and certainly a much healthier thing in itself than beating the crap out of people tends to be. I often feel the lack of it, when reading or watching things that otherwise portray a wide variety of human needs and experiences.

It’s not that simply finding something titillating is difficult. “The Internet is for porn,” as the song goes, and it takes mere seconds to have the ‘net deliver on that purpose. But the sort of mass-produced stuff that’s easiest to find is soulless and formulaic, quick to deliver a sexual buzz, but entirely bereft of anything deeper. I want it all, I suppose: sexy action that means something due to how it’s situated in a larger narrative. Not just actors, but characters; not just foreplay, penetration, and climax, but character arcs and relationships that, as relationships do, sometimes lead to the bedroom.

I’ve looked for the kind of meaningfully situated sexytimes fiction in various places, to varying degrees of success. I’ve played a few eroge, but it’s difficult to find one whose gameplay doesn’t feel trashy and misogynistic, the player building up points until they can add characters to a portfolio of sexual conquests. This Salon article about a plot-driven porn flick had me hopeful, but the film fails horrifically in the respects the creators boast about; it’s a bunch of conventional pornographic scenes interspersed with badly acted arguments about monogamy, hardly a plot worth following. There’s a whole Web site dedicated to modifying games like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim to have sexual content, but from what little I can tell before I need to leave in revulsion (there’s a lot of love for… nonconsensual stuff there), it’s as vapid as the rest, adding nudity and erotic animations without any character or plot context.

The closest I’ve come to satisfying this odd craving has been in genre fiction that happens to have great sex scenes. N.K. Jemisin’s Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and Broken Kingdoms, for instance, have some really well written encounters between their characters that fit perfectly within the greater stories of those relationships. The Saga graphic novels feature some pretty steamy images with their main characters. But it’s difficult to specifically seek those things out, because books are rarely reviewed with this focus in mind.

Which brought me to this point with the WriMo novel. In my outline (I find I’m most successful if I have things mapped out to at least the chapter level, if not scene by scene, before diving in), I had a spot carved out for an amorous encounter between the protagonist and a chief rival. When I got there, I skipped over it. I told myself it was because the relationship between the characters had developed a little differently than I’d planned, and it no longer made sense for them to hook up. Of course, that was my comfort zone speaking.

When I got to the end of the subplot involving these two characters, though, I found that I was only a couple thousand words shy of the 50,000-word target for the month. I wasn’t likely to get very far with something entirely new; I had plenty more in the outline, but I would barely have scratched the surface of the next major arc before running out of space and/or time. So I looked back at that passed-over interlude, and thought, what the hell. Be the change you want to see in the world, right?

It was fun, in any case, though it’s probably for the best that no one else will likely ever read it! Now that I’ve done such a thing once, maybe it’ll be easier to psych myself up to doing it again. Practice makes perfect?

Fiction Blog!

As many of you know, I’m taking another stab at the National Novel Writing Month, my first since my second win seven years ago. I used to publish my fiction writing on a shared LiveJournal, but in keeping with my overall move away from that platform, I’m starting up a new blog to dump my fiction writings into: the Shattered Mirrors to this blog’s Twisted ones.

I don’t promise that NaNoWriMo stuff, focused as it is on vomiting forth words of no particular quality, will be at all readable or entertaining. I’ll make a second announcement here when I change over from WriMo work to more polished publication.