Sunday, May 21, 2017

Whither the Everyman?

Just the other day, Russell Newquist made an observation that actually hits me where I live:
I’ve noticed a disturbing trend over the last four decades or so (and perhaps longer). The iconic heroes of my childhood were all ordinary men. Luke Skywalker, John McClain, Rocky Balboa, Indiana Jones, etc. At least, in their original incarnations.
Consider Luke Skywalker from A New Hope (and, for a moment, pretend that none of the other films exist). He’s a nobody farmer on a backwards planet. His parents aren’t amazing to speak of, and certainly aren’t shown as royalty. He’s the son of a knight, nothing more. Even so, it proves to be a huge step up from his own life. Yet he goes on to rescue the girl, defeat the bad guy, and save the rebellion.
Next consider Harrison Ford in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Again, pretend that the other films don’t exist. He’s an ordinary, everyday American. His parents? Not even mentioned. He earns his position himself, through hard work.
John McClain? A New York cop, an ordinary guy. Rocky Balboa? Another nobody. Every single hero Heinlein ever wrote? Still ordinary, self-made men.
Now, consider the transformations even some of these same characters have undergone over the decades.
Luke Skywalker? It turns out he’s the scion of the greatest royal family in the galaxy.
Indiana Jones? His big-name archaeologist dad set the stage.
The trend isn’t universal, but it trends distinctly in favor of aristocrats and away from self-made, ordinary men.
I have a few quibbles with Russell's characterization of Tony Stark, who I think became Ironman through hard work and smarts and not by virtue of his massive inheritance (at least if you look at the MCU), but yes: There has definitely been a drift away from the sort of storytelling that uplifts the Everyman.

The reason this hits me is that Everyman characters are among my favorites in SFF. Consider, for example, Vir Cotto on Babylon 5. I'm actually famous in certain circles for my obsession with Vir; in fact, I get recognized at conventions if I happen to mention my old screen name precisely because, for a while there, Vir was all I could write or talk about. The thing I adored about Vir was that, at the beginning, there was absolutely nothing special about him -- unless you consider being supremely awkward and perpetually terrified a talent. Instead, he had to grow into heroism. He wasn't born the Centauri de Sousa Mendes who would one day be emperor; he became that man in the school of hard knocks.  He became that man by looking at Londo's awful decisions and choosing to go a different way.

Consider too The Lord of the Rings. There are aristocrats in Tolkien's work (just as there were on Babylon 5), but for me, the emotional core of the story can be found in the experiences and choices of the thoroughly ordinary hobbits.

Overall, I think you have a better story if you start with average joes who become heroic through effort and evolution. So why are such characters on the decline in popular culture? I think, first of all, that this trend is a symptom of our cultural elites' profound confusion on just what makes a hero. Look at how they lauded the rich and famous Bruce/Caitlin Jenner for being "brave" when he came out as trans (and by the way, I'm not using "she" here because I'm not sure Jenner's sincere). These decadent aristos are so wrapped up in their "identities" that they've forgotten that heroes have to do things to make the world better. Simply being gay is not heroic. Simply being trans is not heroic. Simply being black is not heroic -- unless, like Ben Carson, you came from legitimate poverty and boot-strapped your way to a medical degree and a career saving lives. But identity politics emphasizes what people are rather than what they do as a matter of course; is it any wonder, then, that its practitioners can no longer conceive of a character who's defined by his actions rather than by accidents of his birth?

I also believe - and have noted many times before - that our cultural elites are now almost completely divorced from ordinary people. They don't hang out with beat cops, factory workers, or farmers; indeed, they look down on common folk as fat, uneducated, tasteless slobs who - horror of horrors - have the audacity to vote against their "betters" and their peacock proposals. Therefore, they simply have no ability or desire to write these Everymen into their fiction as heroes. Besides, if we're talking about the US, "average" usually means cis, straight, and white* -- and as every good aristo knows, those folks should just suck it up and step aside for the revolutionary vanguard.  After all, the members of the new proletariat need to see characters that look exactly like them in every story that's written or filmed  -- because human universals and cross-cultural empathy are no longer things that exist.

On the whole, I think our cultural elites simply don't believe that regular working stiffs could ever really be heroes. To them, heroism requires breeding, education, the right political views, and - if possible - some sort of victim cred. The John McClanes of the world, on the other hand, are seen as gross -- byproducts of a patriarchal, racist, and less enlightened age.

And thus the collapse of our civilization proceeds apace.

*Which is not to say you can't write nonwhite, non-straight Everymen. That absolutely can be done -- but probably not by our elites, who've climbed into bed with minority radicals in their own class and don't really have contact with the rest.

Friday, May 19, 2017

#SpaceOperaWeek: Steph Weighs In

Over the past week, many geek bloggers have been sharing their thoughts on what makes a successful space opera, and I do feel the obligation to chime in -- especially since, as I mentioned in my apology post on Wednesday, I am a total space opera girl. Whether it comes to us on film or in print, I just eat that stuff up.

Definitions are murky when it comes to literary genres, but when I think of space opera, I think of several key features:
  • Interstellar travel via faster-than-light drives or wormholes.
  • Far-future technology that is semi-magical (but will sometimes be explained by minimally-plausible handwavium).
  • Multiple space-faring civilizations with divergent worldviews that interact with each other through trade, diplomacy, and military conflict. 
  • An arc of galactic history - either explicit or implied - that covers centuries -- if not eons.
So what, exactly, appeals to me in this genre? When I pick up a space opera, what are some of the things I look for?

Well, first of all, I'm going to echo others and say that a successful space opera absolutely needs to have that sensawunda. The galaxy in a space opera should be chock-a-block with mysterious ruins, fearsome "old ones," and natural dangers that will lead our protagonists down surprising roads of discovery and exploration. Or, to put it another way, a space opera should inspire humility. As a reader, I want to walk away feeling like I don't know everything -- like there are things in the universe undreamt of in my philosophy that I should approach with circumspection and even awe.

Secondly, I like high stakes. I want the characters in a space opera to fight for things that really matter. Existential "fate of the quadrant/galaxy" threats work very well for this criterion (and happen to be awesome) -- but freedom, love, and truth are also excellent motivators. Whatever you choose for the lodestone, it has to be something that will force the principals to become better people in its pursuit.

Third, I like characters with agency. They should be animated by the belief that their actions can make a difference in the universe -- even in the face of the wondrous, the frightening, and the seemingly unknowable. They should want to make things better and should seek to understand whatever they encounter. They don't always have to succeed, mind you; tragedy does have its place here -- but nihilism and passivity don't.

And there are some smaller things I like as well. For example, I have to admit that I enjoy political intrigue and/or philosophical rumination. This does not mean I appreciate a space opera's getting bogged down in today's fad-of-the-moment. It does, however, mean that a space opera shouldn't avoid the big questions; after all, where are the aforementioned high stakes if we aren't exploring the purpose of existence, say, or the nature of good and evil? Indeed, space opera provides a fantastic context in which to meditate on these issues at a far remove from our present-day concerns.

Also, while I don't think aliens are a necessity, I do gravitate to them quite a bit -- especially when it is clear that an author has thought them through and consequently has struck the perfect balance between stretching the reader's imagination and preserving readability.  

Do I think realism is dumb when it comes to space opera? Well, it depends on what you mean by "realism." If by "realism" you mean a close resemblance to our own mundane lives, then yes, "realism" is dumb as hell. But I think internal sensibility and psychological verisimilitude are a must. For a space opera to work, we must be able to comprehend its rules and, even more importantly, relate to the choices made by the characters. Ultimately, the story a space opera tells should, like the myths of old, map onto the habits and yearnings of the human mind; this is genuine realism, and it leaves plenty of room for Barsoom and all the rest. 

Wednesday, May 17, 2017


Ran out of time today before I could get a post published. Many apologies, folks. I promise I'll put something substantive up on Friday. After all, it's #SpaceOperaWeek, and space opera is one of my favorite genres!

Monday, May 15, 2017

Video: Why I Hate the SJW YouTube Community

This is a very long video, but I highly recommend it because it describes in excruciating detail just some of the crap social justice bullies have inflicted on dissenters all over the Western world, whether the subject is Islam, race/gender/sexuality, or hell, even which science fiction works are worthy of acclaim. Believe me: Kraut and Tea only addresses the tip of a very large and very sinister iceberg. Ask anyone who has publicly questioned SJB orthodoxy and you will hear equally sordid tales of lying, doxing, blackmail, extortion, libel, etc. These people, quite frankly, are evil; whether that's a natural outgrowth of their ideology or an odd feature of their individual personalities - or a little of both - is an interesting topic for discussion.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Blast from the Past: More Adults Should Read Children's Books

This post, originally written in December of 2010, still holds generally true -- though in the years since, many enterprising authors of adult fiction have been trying to buck the trends described below.

I read a lot of history and my fair share of adult science fiction and fantasy. I also frequently visit the “Current Events” shelf, and I love Catholic writers such as Scott Hahn or the late Fulton J. Sheen. But let’s be honest: I am also an adult who reads children’s books — and I personally think other adults should do the same.

A while back, sci-fi author Brad Torgersen complained in an excellent blog post that science fiction has lost its sense of adventure in its eagerness to be ideologically correct. I would like to expand that insightful lament and state that adult literature in general has gone down that same path.

It’s all a part of a wider trend in the arts. Just as the power to shock and repel is prized in the visual arts, “serious” authors desperately seek to be outrĂ© and thereby win the praises of our supposed cultural elites. The result of this mad dash for accolades is paradoxical: these authors try so hard to cut a flash, but they end up turning out mere variations on the same dreary theme. I can’t recall off the top of my head who it was who first observed that sin is, in reality, terribly boring and uniform, but I can’t think of a better proof of such a statement than what currently passes for adult literature, in which irredeemable characters stumble their way through their irredeemable universes.

I’m generalizing, of course, but what I’ve found in a lot of adult literature, science fiction or no, are worlds that are not only devoid of adventure but also lacking in hope. This is not true of the children’s books I read. Even a very dark YA outing like The Hunger Games usually manages to end on at least a vaguely positive – though bittersweet – note.

In children’s literature, I have found the realistically flawed though redeemable characters, the sense of wonder, the hope that good will ultimately prevail in its battle against evil — everything that, for the past few decades, has been sadly missing in critically acclaimed adult literature. When I call to mind the works of fiction that have inspired me, children’s titles dominate the list. The Chronicles of Narnia. The Wingfeather Saga. The Tripods Trilogy. The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane. If you are looking for profound explorations of the human condition, you will find them in these works — and you will do so without having to wade through a sea of melancholic dreck.

Of course, it is not true that C.S. Lewis only wrote children’s books. But if Governor Palin or any other politician should one day admit that he or she gets enjoyment out of reading children’s literature, that will only make me want to vote for that politician all the more. To me, an unapologetic love of children’s works signals a glorious lack of self-consciousness and, more importantly, a personal questing after decency and virtue that can only bode well for our republic.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Today's Chuckle: The Venezuela Diet!

Yeah, pretty much -- especially with that parody of an academic at the end.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Health Insurance and Health Care Access Are Not Synonymous...

... and my own life story illustrates why.

In 2006, I was uninsured. No -- I wasn't shirking on an adult responsibility; instead, I had a pre-existing condition, no employer-provided coverage, and no means to pay for an individual plan at the "high-risk" rate. Thus, when I came down with an intractable infection that landed me in the hospital several times over the course of two months, I was handed a bill that totaled over $20,000. Just for a point of reference, I made about $26,000 – $30,000 a year. My hospital tab was 2/3 of my highest annual salary.

But here’s what happened next: My mother and I informed our local hospital that I could not pay their bill, and they referred me to a hospital charity set up to deal with cases like mine. This charity took a look at my income and my necessary outlays (car payment, student loan, etc.) and decided to cover 75% of my medical expenses. The remaining 25% was spread out over a few years of monthly payments.

During my gap years, I was always able to access care. Not only did a voluntary organization assist me in the instance described above, but I also had an in-town rheumatologist who charged me a very reasonable "out-of-pocket" rate for office visits and an arrangement with a major pharmaceutical company that ensured I could get a very expensive biologic mailed to my house free of charge.

Fast forward to 2017. Obamacare has helped me pay for an insurance plan, and it's pretty generous on paper. Standard preventative care is fully covered, while specialist co-pays are dirt cheap. Trouble is, I can't see my in-town rheumatologist anymore. Instead, I had to start over with a specialist the next county over, and it's damnably difficult to get a convenient appointment with her because she - and my primaries too - are consistently booked solid. In short, while I am now lavishly insuredaccess is now difficult.

Here's the upshot: When crafting health care policy, we shouldn't worry about insuring everyone. That's not the real issue. The real issue is that some people are having trouble accessing medical care -- and simply roping everyone into a national insurance scheme may not actually solve that problem. Please keep this under consideration while discussing Obamacare and/or its possible replacements.