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Tolkien in a Time of Strife

Last week, whilst snowed in with the kids for a day, I decided to introduce them to Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Lord of the Rings. We watched Fellowship, which is about as much as one can ask of a 7 year old and a 4 year old in one day. They liked it and were very engaged in the battle scenes and loved Galadriel and Arwen, especially. I liked it more.

Ohmygod, cut away! Fade out! WHY ARE WE STILL WATCHING THIS? AHHHHHH!

It’s always been my favorite of the three films. It’s the one I think deserved all the Oscars, not the bloated 3rd Act with all the incessant monologues and that damned ship that we watched sail away for, like, ten minutes or something. The Fellowship of the Ring really conveys the full strength of the novels in miniature, and does so with artistry rather than with brute SFX force. I’m not here, though, to debate the films’ comparable merits. I’m here to tell you how the movie affected me this last time in a way it hadn’t before.

Our society – by which I mean the United States – has taken a pretty sharp left turn into dark, disturbing, and destructive territory (yeah, yeah – there’s some politics here. Feel free to tune out.). Times are uncertain. People are uneasy, the world stands on edge. A dark power has arisen, one seeking to devour all that the free peoples have built over the ages. One that sows lies and deceit with every breath. One that values wealth and power above all other concerns – a Dark Lord.

And so here we are. The analogy is pretty clear, and it’s notable that Tolkien wrote these books with this loose analogy in mind. The One Ring was always the symbol of greed and domination, of deceit and lies. It is the Machine – the modern world Tolkien saw as antithetical to everything he loved. Everything green and quiet and simple and good. It doesn’t take a lot of prodding to slip the Trump administration, with its desire to obliterate the EPA and its oil tycoon Secretary of State, neatly into place. We can even see the conservative wing of our government, sitting there in their studies, hugging a book, whilst some disembodied voice whispers “BUILD ME AN ARMY WORTHY OF MAR-A-LAGO.”

As in Middle Earth, the human race (the “Race of Men”) is rolling over before the might of the Ring. As Galadriel says:

And nine, nine rings were gifted to the race of Men, who above all else desire power.

…but the hearts of men are easily corrupted. And the ring of power has a will of its own.

Saruman’s betrayal: Fake News! Sad!

Enter Boromir, who may as well be wearing a Make Gondor Great Again hat, pissed off at the elves for not doing enough to save his people, pissed off at Aragorn for shirking his duty, pissed off that they have this super-weapon ring that might turn the tide and they’re just gonna throw it away.
So the guy is a hand’s breadth from betraying Frodo, stealing the Ring, and ruining them all. But, for all this, he is not a bad guy. He’s just a human being, trying to get by in a world he doesn’t fully understand, observing it through unavoidable filter of his own experience. One can (and I have) written essays on understanding Boromir’s motives – he is the symbol for humanity more than any other in the trilogy. But, of course, he’s still dead wrong. He still seeks to betray.

Here’s the thing, though: he realizes he was wrong. He redeems himself, fighting to defend his friends and dying in the attempt. There – right there – is the cause for hope. The hope that he himself could not see even as Galadriel told him of it. He cannot see it because he is blinded by his own struggles and lashing out at what he thinks are their cause. But he’s wrong.

Boromir joins a long list of hopeless people giving in to darkness for the lack of hope. Saruman is a great example, as is Theoden before Gandalf’s intervention. Even Smeagol/Gollum falls on this spectrum – a being so poisoned by his own greed that he loses all sense of self. There is no hope beyond which the Ring might provide him – that Sauron might provide him. But, of course, Sauron has no intention of doing so. As Gandalf says:

There is only one lord of the ring, Saruman – only one. And He does not share power.

So, okay – what are we to do in the face of all this? We feel powerless to affect the destinies of nations, of peoples, of the world. We, like Frodo, wish it had never happened to us. We are angry with the ones whose fear has brought us to this pass – Frodo wishes Bilbo had killed Gollum when he had the chance. Again, though, Gandalf demurs:

Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them. Frodo? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.

We are left, then, with two pieces of wisdom, one from Gandalf and one from Galadriel, to guide us. On the one hand, Gandalf tells us that all people who live in such times wished they were not so, but we cannot make such choices. All we can do is decide what to do with the time that is given us. And then, Galadriel:

Even the smallest person can change the course of history.

I take great comfort in those words. I must – we all must – endeavor to maintain hope in the face of despair and loss. We must seek to be unafraid before that which is fearsome and terrible to behold. Small though we are, we must believe. Because if we give in to fear and lose our hope, if we (to paraphrase Aragorn) sever all bonds of fellowship, then the Dark Lord will have won.

The Politics in Writing

Trouble in the Galactic Senate...

Trouble in the Galactic Senate…

Okay, okay – everybody is talking about politics lately. Kinda hard not to, right? The world is freaking out, opinions are being expressed, people are upset, and so on and so forth. So what’s a writer (or any artist in general) supposed to do, here?

On the one hand, I have the advice of Kevin J Anderson, who told me and the other guests at the Writers of the Future workshop a few years back that political discussions by an author were unwise. “There is no sense,” he said, “to alienate half your audience.” He suggested we stay out of it. Do our talking through our writing, essentially.

On the other hand, we have a cadre of very politically vocal authors such as John Scalzi, Chuck Wendig, Kameron Hurley, and others besides. Notably, I recall a tweet from Ann Leckie who said, essentially, that politics is present in our lives and in our writing, no matter what we think of it. To ask that an author alienate politics from their public discourse is to ask that the author alienate a significant part of themselves. What are the odds that if you don’t like my politics, you are going to like my writing, anyway?

In balancing these points of view, one has to admit that Anderson has a point: why alienate potential readers if you don’t have to? Of course, it is notable that Scalzi, Wendig, and the like are hardly suffering as a result of their political opinions. One might argue that for every person who puts a book down thanks to politics, another picks it up for the same reason.

Because this was *just* about robots and humans fighting in space, right?

Because this was *just* about robots and humans fighting in space, right?

It’s Leckie’s view that sticks with me, though. How do you even avoid politics in writing or in social media? The avoidance thereof is, itself, a political statement. Your writing is going to espouse political viewpoints, no matter how apolitical you seek to be. Politics is important. You ought to have opinions about it. Lack of opinions about it signifies privilege, which is a side-effect (or even a goal) of particular political views. So, okay, sure – you can tiptoe around this stuff for years on end and act like you have no opinions, but you do. We know you do, you know you do, and we can even find your opinions in your writing no matter what you think. So why not just be honest? Speak your mind. Will it piss people off? Sure. But they probably weren’t going to like you anyway.

Now, for my own part, I have tried to keep overt political statements off this blog. I haven’t always been successful (I’ve had one or two people ragequit over some idle quip here or there), but I think I’ve made this a fairly “safe” environment for fans of my work to read what I have to say on the subject of scifi, fantasy, writing, and other geeky endeavors. But on Twitter, I just speak my mind. Because if you’re following me on Twitter, that implies you want to know me, not just read my feed for book ads. Now, back before the political world went batshit insane, my Twitter feed was a pretty dull, sedate place. These days not so much. You don’t want to know my political opinions? Don’t follow me.

Of course, if you wind up reading my books or stories, you’re going to get my political opinions anyway. You just might not realize it, I guess. In thinking about this post, I debated whether or not to discuss or reveal what I feel the true, underlying meaning of some of my work is in a political context, but I eventually decided against it – Foucault’s author function and all that. I will point out, though, that everything in scifi and fantasy has contemporary political meaning, whether you like it or not. There’s the obvious ones, sure – Star TrekStar Wars, and the like. But then there’s others, too. Game of Thrones is about us and our political systems, not the middle ages. The Walking Dead, likewise, is a story about our own political terrors. The Martian? Political, though indirectly so – a love letter to government workers and federal systems, to international cooperation and technological advance through capitalist means. The Expanse? Obviously. Colony? Hell yes. Even American Horror Story is rooted in political discourse. You can disagree, but it’s all there. Even the MCU can’t escape. Books, comics, movies, video games – they are caught up in it.

This is because politics is the stuff of life, like it or not. We authors (and artists) are engaged in the study and exploration of life and, therefore, we are inevitably drawn to discuss politics. So, yeah, I guess I could be all coy about it and resolve never to speak a political word in public, but then I’d be wearing a mask over my true self. I’ve never been much good at that; neither have a lot of good authors. Will it hurt my career to be so open on Twitter? That remains to be seen, I suppose. I just can’t fully imagine being any other way, though.

This, ironically, would probably make me a poor politician.

One-on-One: The Dramatic Importance of the Duel

yevgeny_onegin_by_repinThis is something of a gaming post, but also a writing post, and also something about politics. Been thinking about that debate coming up tonight (and who hasn’t been?) and whether I want to watch or not and why. To a large extent, I feel like most people have already made up their minds about Trump and Clinton. I mean, how could they not? What on earth could either of them say to change anybody’s mind at this point? Now, I don’t actually know how many people are undecided – maybe it’s a lot – but even in that case, I have a hard time imagining that this debate is going to sway them. One wonders why we have the debate at all, if everything is all pretty well set in the public imagination.

I think a lot of it is because there’s gonna be a fight, and we’re invited to watch.

The duel – facing your foe mano a mano – is an ancient and hallowed tradition not only in history, but in mythology and story as well. Beowulf against Grendel, David against Goliath, Gandalf against the Balrog, Miyamoto Musashi against Sasaki Kojiro – two opponents doing battle for honor, glory, revenge, or even simply survival is old as the hills and universal as song. It is an inherently dramatic scene; it stirs the imagination effortlessly. Each combatant, representing their ideals and their supporters, facing one another in a defining conflict that can only end in a new understanding, either of the world, themselves, or each other. The duel is the symbolic manifestation of change itself.

And yet role-playing games are so often diametrically opposed to them. One of my biggest complaints about D&D (and about the systems derived from its lineage) is that there is seldom any good way to have a one-on-one battle that is interesting. It takes a lot of gymnastics to get those things to work, since D&D is inherently an ensemble game and no fool would go into battle alone when they could have a cleric there to boost them back up to normal. Thing is, though, without duels, beating the villain just becomes a kind of curb-stomping mob scene. Six mighty “heroes” surround the giant, pull it to the ground, and stab it until its dead and there isn’t a damned thing the giant can do. Kinda underwhelming, guys.

Vader could have saved himself a lot of effort if he just brought twenty stormtroopers, right?

Vader could have saved himself a lot of effort if he just brought twenty stormtroopers, right?

In this sense, though, there’s a fair amount of reality in RPGs: in real life, why the hell would you fight somebody one-on-one outside of foolish notions of manhood and honor? Bring five of your friends to the hill at dawn and beat the crap out of that jerk who challenged you and go home alive, right? Historically speaking, this is one of the things the Romans figured out (borrowed from Alexander) that screwed over the Celts and other “barbaric” tribes in their way: the Roman legions operated as one cohesive fighting group, whereas many of these tribes were just groups of warriors out for individual glory. The legions just ground them down and marched over them – not perhaps personally glorious, but victory itself was glory enough for Rome.

In fiction, the author has to jump through hoops to set up their one-on-one battles. They just don’t happen by themselves, you know? No cop in real life says to his unit “leave Mendoza for me!” No soldier on the front is going to stand back while his sergeant engages in a knife fight with an enemy combatant. Notions of “honor” and “good form” are fun and all, but in the broad history of the world, they aren’t precisely “real.” And, in particular, the person who is willing to bring a gun to that knife-fight, the person who sees nothing wrong in ganging up on the lone warrior to destroy him, well, they’re the ones who usually win. Because duels are pretty foolish.

However, we hang such importance on them in our popular imagination. We crave that moment when Vader challenges Skywalker, when Inigo finally catches up with Count Rugen. We love it because we want to know that our heroes are real – that these champions of ours can walk out there and smite evil all by themselves, without us backing them up. It makes us feel good, to know our heroes are the genuine article. Never mind that such knowledge is an illusion, an orchestrated sham – our heroes in real life don’t stand by themselves, but exist as a representative of a network of people devoted to our welfare. The firefighter who carries you out of the burning building gets the glory, but the 911 dispatcher and his fellow firefighters and the engineers who designed his gear got him there. We see the individual, but we forget the legion that made victory possible.

Nowhere is this irony more pronounced than in a “debate” between two people who, while potent individuals in their own right, are standing on a stage doing battle in the most coached, stilted, and artificial of circumstances. When Clinton or Trump speak, they are not speaking as one person – they are speaking as the heads of a movement, of a political party, of an electorate whose support they seek. They have very little power of their own to shape events – not without the millions of people who they hope will vote them into office, where they will again serve as the capstone of an administrative structure that is as collective and collaborative as their campaign is now. But does any of that really matter to us on an emotional level? Not at all.

We want our duel. We want to see our champion victorious. We want to believe in heroes, no matter how we manipulate the world to make them seem real.

The Right to Make You Feel Icky

I quote from Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols:

Let us finally consider how naïve it is altogether to say: “Man ought to be such and such!” Reality shows us an enchanting wealth of types, the abundance of a lavish play and change of forms – and some wretched loafer of a moralist comments: “No! Man ought to be different.” He even knows what man should be like, this wretched bigot and prig: he paints himself on the wall and comments, “Ecce homo!” But even when the moralist addresses himself only to the single human being and says to him, “You ought to be such and such!” he does not cease to make himself ridiculous.”

Today’s news has brought to my attention two things of which I feel you lot ought to be aware. First, there is Indiana’s terrible, terrible law just passed by the state legislature, known as SB101, which would basically allow establishments to discriminate based off of sexual orientation or religion. Second is this app called CleanReader, which is an app that would censor out naughty words from books.

I’m going to be frank: if neither of those things bother or offend you in any way, it is very unlikely we can be friends. Sorry.

Fortunately, the writing and geek community at large is with me on this one. GenCon is threatening to leave Indiana if SB101 is passed into law, while Joanne Harris and Chuck Wendig have some very pointed words for the creators of CleanReader. As you can imagine, Wendig’s argument is rather…vivid.

But so what, though? So what if Wendig says “fuck” a million times? They are his words and he gets to say them and that, so far as I’m concerned, is the end of the conversation. This extends to Indiana: so what if somebody likes to have sex with their same sex? So what? What, it makes you uncomfortable? Who gives a shit if you’re uncomfortable? You know what? People who sneer at gay people make me uncomfortable, yet you don’t see me parading laws through Congress to make pricks like Jerry Falwell inadmissible to Pizza Hut. If I own a restaurant and some little shit comes in spouting racist bullshit and makes distasteful jokes about gay people to his buddies, he still gets to buy food there. Yeah, he makes me uncomfortable and I don’t like him, but it’s a free country. So long as he does no actual harm (like harasses other patrons) and commits no crimes, he gets to stay.

I try not to wax political on this blog – not my purpose – but some discussion of morality is apropos to my book (The Iron Ring – see sidebar), so I’m going to wax moralistic for a spell.

Bear with me. Nietzsche, I feel, has a good argument (up to a point): Who the hell appointed (insert group here) as supreme arbiters of what is right and wrong? Now, both sides of our political and moral landscape are operating under the assumption that the other is the group inside those parentheses. Liberal secularists think that Christian conservatives are trying to dictate our behavior and vice versa. The thing is, though, that the things each side are trying to control are different. Speaking broadly, liberal secularists wish to make it illegal for people to inflict harm on others in the form of prejudice, discrimination, and mistreatment. Conservative Christians wish to make it illegal for people to act or behave outside the bounds of what they consider to be proper. Yes, there is some variation there – neither side is like that on 100% of the issues – but the characterization, I feel, is generally fair.

Here is the operative difference between those two positions and why, for the most part, I take the side of the liberal secularists: One is defending people against actual harm, and the others are defending themselves against feeling icky. The first category is what I would categorize as legitimately moral and the second I characterize as illegitimate morality. Seeing two dudes making out does you no harm – none, zippo, nada. Letting those two dudes file taxes jointly and letting them inherit each other’s property and letting them adopt children also does no one any harm (seriously – zero evidence to the contrary). So, other than the fact that certain people behave in a way that irritates your virginal sensibilities and contradicts some words you got written down in some book you think is from a god, we aren’t actually talking about anything important. Sure, you can still believe these things (and maybe make me feel uncomfortable about it), but you can’t force everybody else to stop making you feel icky. No.

What you can do, however, is prohibit people from harming others. What constitutes harm? Well, harassment, social discrimination, prejudice, and abuse based upon sex, creed, race, or orientation. Censorship of an author’s work without consent. Curtailment of public discourse. Physical incarceration or financial penalties on the basis of the above. That is not okay. You do not get to make me into a criminal or pariah just because I make you feel icky or uncomfortable. Nobody is saying you have to buy my books, but if you do, you are going to have to read about all the gay sex and profanity I feel is appropriate to the story. Suck it up, cupcakes. You don’t like it, then I guess that’s fine – don’t read my stuff. It’s a free country.

For now, anyway.  

Don’t Mess with Arrendale

I have been watching Frozen on loop now for the past several months. I have listened the soundtrack a million times. My daughter insists we sing “Love is an Open Door” as a duet, making sure I don’t edge in on the Anna part, since I’m supposed to just sing the Hans part.

The movie has been on my mind a lot.

Piss her off, and kiss your crops goodbye, folks.

Piss her off, and kiss your crops goodbye, folks.

Among the many, many things to say about this movie (and it is a great Disney movie, mind you), one comes to mind: How screwed is everybody else in the Frozen universe? I mean, seriously, Queen Elsa has just thrown down the geopolitical gauntlet. Think about it – this is a young woman who dropped her entire country into the depth of winter in the middle of the summer and she did this by accident. Holy shit.

Here’s how every negotiation with Arrendale goes from here on out:

Ambassador: Your Highness, we think these trade agreements are unfair.

Elsa: Oh, really? Because I think it’s rather nice of me to let your country have any liquid water at all. You know, if you catch my meaning.

Ambassador: These trade agreements look great! Boy, howdy, what a deal!

If Elsa learns to control her powers (which she seems to at the end), this is going to be great for Arrendale in the short term, sure. What appears to be a rather small, isolated country now needn’t fear foreign invasion and stands to have a lot of political weight to throw around if another country decides to play dirty.

Of course, as any historian can tell you, having some kind of overwhelming power while everyone else lacks it might be a recipe for regional hegemony, it also often leads to military conflict. One can see a group of nations banding together to take down the Witch of Arrendale if for no other reason than they are tired of living in terror of Queen Elsa’s foul moods. I mean, just how many ambassadors can you have shipped back to you in a block of ice with a note reading “sorry, he was rude.”

This could be avoided by Elsa not using her powers, naturally, or sharply curtailing their use. However, since she spent most of her youth being forbidden to ‘be herself’, now that she can use them (and her people love her for it), how can she not? If Weaseltown makes a shady move to box Arrendale out of some kind of trade market, hurting her citizens, do you think Elsa isn’t going to send a blizzard to make those Weasels rethink their decision? Not likely.

War is certainly coming, one way or another, or, to borrow the Starks words, Winter is Coming. For Arrendale and everybody else in the region, it’s likely to be a long one, too. No one can put up with one country having a weapon of mass destruction and not having one themselves unless those nations are willing to play second fiddle to Arrendale’s new superpower status. Sure, they may do this for a while, but not forever. And what happens, then, when Elsa dies? Do the vultures come to feed then? Do old scores get settled? Even worse to consider is this: what happens if Elsa’s gift propagates to her offspring? Now Arrendale controls a bloodline of super-weapons, and now it becomes a geopolitical struggle to control and contain them. This means dead and kidnapped babies, everybody – dead and kidnapped babies.

This guy sees the writing on the wall.

This guy sees the writing on the wall.

One can scarcely blame the Lord of Weaseltown, then, from looking to eliminate Elsa immediately. He’s an old guy and, despite his goofy appearance, he clearly knows his diplomatic business. He doesn’t just want Elsa dead because she’s scary, but also because her very existence will destabilize a region that, up until then, seems to be fairly peaceful and prosperous. Killing Elsa is the best thing not only for Weaseltown, but arguably for Arrendale, as well. Heck, even if he doesn’t manage killing her, demonizing her as a monster will keep her off the throne, and that’s enough to keep the world on an even keel. What he’s doing, while underhanded and reactionary, could very likely avoid generations of terror and violence in the land. He, in a certain sense, is doing us all a favor.

Then again, who knows? Maybe Elsa is wise enough to use her power sparingly, to keep it out of the geopolitical spectrum, and to control it carefully and conscientiously for the good of all. Then again, you know what they always say about absolute power, too. I’m not so sure Elsa is going to beat the odds there. If you live in one of Arrendale’s neighboring countries, I’d start stocking up on firewood and, for God’s sake, get the hell out of the ice business.