Thursday, November 28, 2013

TV Review: Continuum

In the slowly increasingly history of the Arsenal I've really only talked about TV shows twice. The very first official post where I talked about Gene Roddenberry's Andromeda, and that one time I talked about my opinions on the sixth series of the new Doctor Who. (Well, okay, three times if you include that time I talked about Firefly in a video.) It's a little funny because it's not like most of the entertainment I consume is just books so that's what I have to talk about. There are plenty of times where I sit down on the couch after a rough day and enjoy whatever happens to be in my Netflix queue at the moment (Mythbusters if you were interested) and there are plenty of video games that I enjoy playing. Perhaps the only person I know who is a more avid fan of the Total War franchise is my colleague Carvan. I think, however, that a lot of the TV shows I watch and video games that I play are pretty out there in the public consciousness and I don't really need to talk about them. I mean, who the heck in the sci-fi community hasn't heard of Doctor Who by now?

Continuum, I suspect, makes a notable exception in that case. I was only made aware of it because it was in a list of suggestions for me on Netflix based on my interest in sci-fi and time travel. Although I've only seen the first season I've ended up with rather strong opinions on Continuum and I have yet to meet anyone who's also seen the show. (Considering that as of writing it's an ongoing series that at least suggests it has got a rather strong following to merit continued existence.) As such I feel justified in writing about this series and pestering you all with my opinions on it.

Continuum is a series that is (originally) set in the year 2077. The governments of the world failed financially and had to be bailed out by the large corporations. As a result the corporations now control and own everything and there are, unsurprisingly, some people who are unhappy with this situation and are leading a rebellion/terrorist campaign against the corporate-controlled government. A handful get captured for bombing the Corporate Congress and were slated for execution but managed to engineer an escape attempt that transported them back to the year 2012, taking with them a police officer called Kiera Cameron. Much of the show then revolves around Cameron trying to stop the terrorists/rebels from trying to interfere with the past so that they can change the future as well as trying to return to her family in her own time. The series relies on a lot of what at this point are time-travel tropes such as the future fish out of water, meeting future famous and influential people, and exploring the paradoxes of time-travel. It doesn't bring terribly much new to the table aside from some Great Recession social commentary, but it's at least fairly enjoyable.
I have, however, two fairly large issues with this series which make me rather ambivalent to the whole thing. The first, and definitely my biggest issue, is how the show handles its portrayal of Cameron and the terrorists/rebels. As you've probably noticed throughout this review I've been adding a stroke whenever I talk about the rebel/terrorist group known as Liber8 in the series. The reason I do so is because I'm not entirely convinced that Liber8 are the bad guys in this scenario. To further explain, in the future of 2077 the freedoms of speech, press, and peaceable assembly have been removed by the government and in many cases martial law has been instituted. In response to these and other harsh measures the member of Liber8, much like V in V for Vendetta have been left with no alternative than violent (and explosive) insurrection. Officer Cameron, by contrast, only occasionally questions the morality of her cause and her support of the existing regime. In the TV show the members of Liber8, who are some pretty hardened criminals regardless of the cause for which they fight, are unequivocally depicted as the villains engaging in theft, murder, kidnapping, extortion, and all manner of other crimes. Cameron is depicted very cleanly as the hero of the series, a traveler lost in time who is trying to do the right thing. However she also utilizes fairly unethical means to gain evidence and confessions in her police work and shows no respect for the legal protections all people are granted when suspected of a crime. And I at least didn't hate Cameron, she was an interesting character and fairly compelling, but there's a part of my brain that was constantly going, "She's a pawn of the government quashing the rights of the people! She violates legal protocol to get results!" That part then picks up a red flag, climbs a barricade, and promptly gets shot but it raises some good points.

The other big issue I have with this series, and perhaps this gets resolved in later seasons, is an inconsistency on whether or not the events occur in one timeline. The first and last episodes of the series pretty strongly state that the series occurs within one timeline and the characters are currently in a time loop and are unable to alter past events in spite of their intentions. However, in the middle of the series they deal specifically with the grandfather paradox and end up with a "Well we just don't know. Maybe we're in a branching timeline. Maybe this is the same timeline but something's different." For my readers who are unaware, the grandfather paradox is a classic time-travel paradox that has bugged the heck out of sci-fi nerds for decades. Suppose you have a time machine and decide to travel back in time to a point before your grandfather has ever met your grandmother. You then kill him. What happens? Some suggest you can kill him, but the timeline will auto-correct and you will cease to exist when the timeline "erases" any errors, a la Back to the Future. Others theorize that you simply cannot kill your grandfather because then you would not be able to exist to come back in time and kill him. Even if you tried your hardest to kill your grandfather the simple fact that you exist means he'll have a series of extremely close scrapes and continue to go on and meet your grandmother. And then some hypothesize that he wasn't really your grandfather all along and in fact you might be your own grandpa, a la Futurama.  Continuum takes on the grandfather paradox and actually kills the grandmother of one of the characters, however said character continues to exist after their grandmother dies. Perhaps this is explored in a later season of the series, but because this is very definitely the same timeline it raises the question of how the character's still able to exist when by all rights they shouldn't. It's all very frustrating and makes me wish the series was more consistent with its own time travel rules.

Overall I have mixed feelings on the series. It was kind of enjoyable, but I feel like it doesn't bring anything new to the table and doesn't do everything it's trying to do well. Definitely not on my recommend list of TV shows if that tells you anything. 

- Kalpar

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Kalpar Lectures: Why Get Offended by Fiction?

Kalpar's Note: Sorry, this is another long, wordy post this week with me ranting about various things which I have opinions about. I had considered doing this as a video lecture but I'm much better at writing my ideas down and I feel like I can transmit it in a more cohesive fashion through this medium. No I haven't died or been attacked or anything, I just haven't felt up to making videos for quite a while due to a combination of laziness and Minecraft. I hope you at least enjoy this post.

Recently I had someone ask me what was the point of getting offended over fiction. The gist of their argument was that since fiction's made up then it doesn't really matter and there's no point in getting offended. I have a much longer response which I'll detail through the rest of this post, but the main point I'm going to make is that fiction does matter and we should care about the messages it sends. And obviously people do get offended by works of fiction, otherwise we wouldn't have a list of the most commonly banned books in the United States, however that offense is not always justified or with some of these books is frequently misguided. But every once in a while you get a book that truly is offensive and sends a message that has no merit whatsoever and it is our right and responsibility as readers to stand up and refuse to accept this sort of garbage as reading material.

Perhaps for as long as humans have existed, we have had fiction. There have always been stories and in some cases they actually pre-date the written word and have been passed down in the oral tradition before being committed to paper. These stories, more specifically these myths (for that's what I'm talking about), served a very important role in helping people understand and make sense of the universe around them. Questions like, "Where did we come from? Why are we here? What's life all about? How should I act towards other people? What happens to me when I die?" Myths sought to explain all of these questions and give people meaning to their existence and an idea on how to operate in the larger world. From the very beginning fiction was a medium to communicate ideas to other people.

Obviously things have gotten a little more complex in the past ten thousand years, but fiction retains its power to communicate philosophies, ideologies, and even theologies to a large number of people in a familiar form. Sometimes fiction is used like a mirror, such as in Gulliver's Travels, where the author reflects all the flaws and issues in society and how they seem so terribly important to those involved, but are really quite silly if you can look at it objectively. Sometimes fiction is used to show how the world really is in contrast to how it really is, like in All Quiet on the Western Front that dispelled the legend of glorious and honorable combat and revealed war for the nightmarish hell that it really is. And sometimes fiction is a means to talk about what's wrong with society and how things can be made better, like the many tangents in Les Miserables which deal with sewers, taxation, and prison reform and how they failed a modern France. With fiction the possibilities are practically endless because you can do all of this and more and are only constrained by the limits of the imagination. Fiction has been and remains a powerful force for influencing how people think, how people act, and how people live and enables one person to share their ideas and beliefs with a very wide range of people.

However, once we get into issues such as opinions and beliefs we start getting into sticky territory. At least in the United States with this glorious freedom of speech and the press, people are allowed to express whatever opinions they wish, no matter how misguided or ill-informed they may be. This has lead to an almost sacred nature of other people's opinions and you're not allowed to challenge their opinions and explain why you think they're wrong in the public forum and be taken seriously. Granted, as the public forum exists now it's very hard to have a reasonable and rational discourse of ideas with another person and it very quickly devolves into a loud shouting match, but ideas should constantly be challenged otherwise there's no way to see if they have any merit and the important thing is to remain respectful despite your disagreement. As with any rule, though, there is of course an exception: when people are completely and utterly wrong and have an opinion that is hurtful than others. Much of America's progress as a nation has been because people have been brave enough to challenge the "opinions" of other people. For example, it was the opinion of quite a few people that African-Americans were "better off" as slaves in the United States and they just didn't have the intellectual capacity to be equal citizens in our country. It was the opinion of many people that Catholics could never be true American citizens because of their loyalty to an overseas absolute monarch: the pope. It was an opinion that women could never be rational enough to trust the vote and they'd just end up voting how their husbands told them to vote. All of these opinions were offensive and based on illegitimate facts and if they had been considered "sacred" and weren't allowed to be challenged in the public forum then we'd be faced with a country still completely dominated by rich, white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant men. (Although now it's only mostly dominated by rich WASP men. So...some progress I guess.)

In the same way, because fiction is capable of transmitting philosophies and ideologies it is very possible for fiction to transmit beliefs and opinions that are simply wrong and need to be vigorously challenged in the forum. And sometimes the author may not even be aware of the unfortunate implications of their writings, such as stating that a strong female character's backstory is because she was raped in her past. As I explained in another lecture elsewhere, rape as a backstory diminishes the agency of a female character and is offensive because it implies that women can only become tough and strong if something extremely bad like rape happens to them. And this trope has been so strongly woven into fiction that some authors might not even be aware that there's something wrong with this message so it's our duty as readers to inform them about why it's wrong and suggest how they can avoid such pitfalls in the future.

There are times when it's a lot harder to tell if the author accidentally put a message into a novel or honestly believes the message that they're promoting through their work. If they appear to be fully behind this message, though, then it once again is our duty to counter their opinions and explain why we find them offensive and what's wrong with them because it is only by doing so that we can affect change. If an author writes a book that is about a truly abusive relationship but constantly describes it as true love, then we should point out how and why it's abusive and challenge this definition of "true love" at every turn. If a book claims that only the best and brightest deserve to prosper and all others should be left behind to suffer and die, we should challenge this assumption and point out that we're all in this together as human beings and, after all, the world needs ditch diggers in addition to geniuses. Offensive and wrong opinions deserve to be challenged and fought in the forum to help us become better as readers, as writers, and as people. If we demand better writing from our authors and vote with our wallets, we can definitely change how things are written and, although to a lesser effect nowadays, what gets published.

Now, is all fiction going to have deep messages and somehow affect how you live and look at the world? No, of course not. Sometimes a story is just a story and you want to be entertained for a while and there's nothing wrong with that. I do that myself on numerous occasions. The danger is assuming that because fiction is fun it is harmless and cannot affect the world beyond the bookshelf and the library. The simple fact of the matter is yes, books can change the world and greatly affect how people live, even fiction books. If this wasn't the case then tyrants would not have censorship and book burning. Authors have a great power in their writing and can influence thousands, if not millions of people with their words, but not every author is going to utilize this power responsibly. We as the consumers have the power of choice in what books we read, what books we recommend for other people, and what books we tell other people to avoid. By voting with our voices and wallets we can control what ideas spread and flourish, and what ideas wither and die. It is an awesome responsibility and we should use it wisely.

- Kalpar

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Bromeliad Trilogy, by Terry Pratchett

This week I've decided to review Sir Terry Pratchett's Bromeliad Trilogy, which is actually an anthology of three books titled Truckers, Diggers, and Wings. This is not a Discworld novel and is actually set in our own universe, but it still comes with the classic Pratchett wit and insight. I was overall pretty satisfied with this book, as I usually am with Pratchett's writing, however I felt like this book could have used some more time to develop. Definitely worth your time to read, and like the other Pratchett young-adult novels I've read it's good for the whole family because it asks some really tough questions that even adults can have trouble with.

In my opinion Bromeliad really isn't three books in a series, it's instead one large book divided into three segments, and if you're going to read this I'd recommend getting the anthology version where all three are bound in one volume because you feel how the whole story is connected together. This is especially true in the case of Diggers and Wings where Diggers tells the beginning and one half of the middle of a story while Wings tells the other half of the middle and then the end. If you read these as separate novels, and especially if you space time between reading them, then there's a good chance that you'll lose track of part of the plot, so I'd definitely recommend taking all of it at one go. And, as with a lot of Pratchett's works, the reading flows rather easily so I think even younger kids would be able to tackle the whole thing.

My main issue with this book is that the pacing feels terribly rushed and I felt like there wasn't a lot of time for ideas to develop. Just to provide an example, within the first two chapter's you're introduced to the fact that nomes, humanoid creatures approximately four inches tall, exist and live on the edges of human society. You're also introduced to the fact that an entire civilization of nomes lives within a department store and thinks that the store comprises the entirety of the known universe. Finally it's revealed that the nomes actually crash landed on our planet fifteen thousand years ago and are aliens from outer space. Again, all of this is within the first two chapters. To establish all of that an author might take half a book, but you're barely into the Bromeliad and all of that gets unloaded on you. And the speed doesn't diminish from there; although the driving plot is the desire of the nomes to "Go home and be safe" , events proceed at an almost breakneck pace.

Indeed, Bromeliad only clocks in at five hundred pages and is still feels on the light side for all the issues that it touches upon. If Pratchett had added another one or two hundred pages of development I think this book would be just about the right length. I think that there might be a good reason for this book feeling rather fast, because nomes live at a much faster pace than we do, although it seems a normal length of time for them by comparison. Perhaps, then, since we are humans reading about nomes the fast pace is to further emphasize the disconnect between our two species. However, as Bromeliad stands it's still an excellent piece of literature and reveals a lot about the nomish (and even human!) condition.

I think the biggest thing about this novel, and I feel like this holds true for all of Pratchett's young adult novels, is that it doesn't talk down to kids or feed them something too simple. Yes there are plenty of works with fairly simple storylines that enjoy great popularity. Pretty much any story that follows the monomyth is going to have familiar archetypes and stick to a semi-familiar pattern, and there are a lot of good examples to that. However, that isn't the only story to be told and sometimes you have to talk about things more complex, such as when there's no bad guys, just people who don't know the consequences of their actions, like in the Bromeliad. Plus, this novel tackles tough issues such as theology and our place in the universe and it doesn't really give any answers, which I think was a good choice on Pratchett's part. When you get right down to it with matters like theology or the universe there's a lot we still don't know and probably can't know and the important thing is to keep asking questions and never get stuck believing things are the way they are because someone else told you. Philosophically I think the book raises more questions than it answers and it's a very good book to challenge a lot of assumptions people might have, especially young people.

Overall a really good book that I enjoyed in spite of its fast pace and potential for more development. Another good read for the family.

- Kalpar

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Bolos Book Four: Last Stand

I've decided to return to one of my favorite series to review this week, the great and mighty Bolos. Like pretty much all the other books in the Bolo series this is actually a collection of short stories in an anthology which comes from a wider range of authors, however old hands like David Weber and Linda Evans return to continue contributing to the series. Overall I think this is a very good book with some really good stories, but like most of the Bolo stories it has a very bittersweet element as you watch these somehow relateable war machines sacrifice themselves for the people they protect. 

I think one of the biggest things that I liked in this book was the introduction of an overall history of the Bolo series as understood from human civilization well after a cataclysmic event known as the Final War. I'll spare you much of the spoiler-y details about this War, but the end result is that all civilization beyond the planetary level was wiped out leaving a handful of remote enclaves. As a result the history of the Bolos before the Final War exists in fragmented records that are often contradictory. I like this a lot because since the Bolo series is written by a many different authors with their own takes on the series, it provides an in-universe explanation for all of the contradictions within the works. I do hope that in later books they manage to smooth out the contradictions and make the series far more cohesive. 

This book is an interesting contrast to some of the other earlier books because in most of the stories the Bolos actually manage to survive their missions. And I do like seeing the Bolos succeed and survive after completing their missions. Somehow, despite the fact that these are giant, thousand ton war machines built for simply one purpose, I still want them to survive in a peace that they've fought for as well. Even if they were never built for that peace. I was definitely interested in the last story when a Bolo decides that it's tired of killing and wants to spend the rest of its days in peace. There's definitely a very human element to the Bolos that makes them something more than just giant metal machines designed for war that really comes to the fore in quite a few of these stories. 

I also really like this book because it further fleshes out the universe in addition to the Final War I discussed above. More alien races and conflicts are introduced, more Bolo models are developed, and the history of the Crazy Years is also developed as well. I like authors both old and new can come to this series and help develop the series and keep it alive with new ideas and innovation. It definitely leaves me hopeful that the later books of this series will also be enjoyable.  Definitely a good read for fans of the Bolo series and I'd recommend it for fans of pulp sci-fi. 

- Kalpar