Cavemen, Potency, and the Angelic Doctor

So. I recently joined TV Tropes (I won't be criticizing things there, here, anymore, since it'd be dishonorable), but it got me thinking about The Matrix, and that got me thinking about philosophy in general.

Leaving the artistic merits to one side, The Matrix is not Plato's allegory of the cave. Yes, they both share the element of release from captivity, and body-self dualism (which is crap, by the way), but half of the allegory of the cave is about metaphysical hyper-realism, the belief that forms are more real, more actual, than the things they're forms of. Those figures with the shadows projected on the wall, in the eponymous Cave? Yeah, that'd be the hyper-realistic forms; the multiple shadows are the multiple examples of each form, created by participation. If the Matrix were the Cave, it'd have a few separate people, AI or human, who each projected a number of different "selfs" into the Matrix. I'll grant it gets more Cave-like once the multiple Smiths show up in the second one, though.

Plato's concept of participation is one of the greatest achievements of all thought. There is a question in philosophy, "How can we talk about chairs, if there are multiple chairs and they're all different?" Plato's solution was that each chair you meet, partakes of the Form or essence of "chair-ness"; there is more than one of them because none of them participates perfectly, but only limitedly. This was genius—certainly better than materialism, which consists of saying that the shadows on the cave wall are the only thing that's real and the figures are a myth. Troglodytes.

But Plato took it too far, saying that the only real thing was the Form, what's participated in. There is no spoon, not because this is a simulation or something, but because this spoon is only a limited projection of the True Spoon—and there's only one of it.

Aside from the One and the Many, the other great question of Philosophy is Change/Constancy, and the related question of coming-to-be and passing away. Many Greek philosophers, including Parmenides of Elea and his student Zeno, hold that change is an illusion, because there's no reason that anything that exists should ever pass away, or come into being if it didn't exist. Conversely other philosophers—Heraclitus and the advaita school in Hindu thought—hold that, since there's no intrinsic nature to anything, everything is in a constant state of flux (which is the source of suffering for a Buddhist, remember).

Aristotle got around the question by, as he usually did, shooting for the Golden Mean. Obviously change is real—"Where are Parmenides and Zeno now?" as he so succinctly put it (they were dead). But obviously constancy exists, too—"Heraclitus has said that more than once, and yet used the same words each time." The reconciliation is the other great achievement of Greek philosophy: Act and Potency. In between the two irreconcilable states, Being and Non-being, and the shift between the two that was causing the trouble, he posited a third state: Being-in-potency. Anything that is not a contradiction in terms has the potential to exist. But only some things actually exist, when individual things participate in their Form (an idea he borrowed from Plato).

Unlike Plato, Aristotle's forms are not hyper-real; most of them are only real when there are individual samples of them. Hence, Mitigated Realism. For Aristotle, see, the form is one of four Causes, so called because each is the reason for something about any given object of thought.
  1. Formal: What a thing is.
  2. Final: What a thing is for (identical with Formal, if it wasn't made by people).
  3. Material: What a thing is like (its traits, including all its material properties).
  4. Efficient: How it got to be how it is, including how it came into being.
Then, along comes Aquinas. At some point—probably during a break from dictating four different books to four different scribes at once—he realized that the two answers are really one answer. Any form that is not a pure act (any form that isn't a pure spirit, that is) has only potential being—therefore, of necessity, it can never have pure actualization. Rather than being an entirely unique pure act (like an angel), it will only be the essence of many material acts—rocks, trees, dogs, or men. Act, in other words, is limited by Potency.


Ho-hum, another masterpiece


Yesterday, I finished my second dark fantasy book. I think I'll talk about the first, though, since the second is a fairly close sequel.

It's about a werewolf who rescues a girl from vampires, killing them in the process, which gets their boss mad at him. There's also a different girl, whose mother was a vampire's living minion; during an altercation with the mother's master, the same werewolf, as a child, seeing the vampire's-minion person rushing toward a child, assumed she was going for a hostage, and killed her...only to realize the woman was going for the child, to protect her from the werewolf, because it was her daughter. The now-adult daughter is killing werewolves (natch). Only, see, she'd previously met his human form, and fell in love with him; she was a creepy, isolated kid (her mom being a vampire's minion, and all), and he was the first not-a-vampire-or-minion-of-same person she'd ever met. So she wants to kill one form of a person she's in love with in another form. Fun, huh?

That's the premise. There's also a priest from a secret vampire-hunting order, and two hunters from a secular vampire hunting group—the former, who's kinda a smartass bastard, likes to mock the latter, since they use the nonsensical "science" vampire idea, like calling them mutants and thinking UV light that's not from sunlight will hurt them. Also the boogieman shows up, as do the vampires who inspired Carmilla and Dracula. There's a bunch of other vampires, too—Japanese jikininki (yes, they fit my definition of vampire—read on); Romanian strigoi, moroi, pricolici, and nesuferâti (Nosferatu); Aztec ciuateteoh (it's set in Tucson); Caribbean loogaroo. There's also multiple kinds of werewolf—all the types of Slavic vlkodlak (wilkolak, vurdilak); French loup-garou; Mexican lobisones; Scandinavian ulfhedhnar and berserkers (who are werebears); Irish and Italian werefoxes; and a Japanese yôko, who isn't exactly a werefox, 'cause he doesn't consider himself human.

It being me, there's a lot of philosophical expospeak—but done pretty well, I feel, since it's both relevant, and not something anyone around today is actually familiar with ("As you know," he didn't say because nobody does, "act is limited by potency"). There's also spell-casting in Latin, German, and Classical Nahuatl, as well as dialog in Czech, Spanish, Japanese, Romanian, and Austrian German (way over-Austrian, really, but it makes everything Carmilla says amusingly incomprehensible). There's also prayers in Latin (because the priests are hardcore, I swear, not just because it sounds much cooler) and mantras in Sanskrit (one of the vampires is still a Buddhist—go look up "Jizô Bosatsu"). The spells involve alchemy (which works a lot faster when a vampire's powering it, a la FMA except the effects are based on Hermetic symbolism rather than chemistry), onmyôdô, and a fictional form of voodoo.

Vampires are, as I previously said, basically what the Japanese call onryô. That is, they're dead people who've come back through resentments—specifically, in line with a lot of real vampire legends, they're mostly suicides (though one of the Japanese jikininki is one because they wouldn't let him commit harakiri). There's also references to Chesterton's Orthodoxy, since that's one of his main points. Fans of anime will find it grapples with existential themes not generally touched in Western work nowadays (fun fact: existentialism doesn't just mean finding a reason to keep going; it involves the question whether one should). This is where Scholasticism and the priests come in: as Maritain demonstrates pretty well in Existence and the Existent, Aquinas has the most coherent philosophy of existence ever formulated.

Werewolves, meanwhile, are an Indo-European warrior society (like berserkers, or the Fianna), that bound the power of the wolf to themselves using true names and sealed it with the moon. They gained the ability to use super-abilities similar to vampires, to change parts of their body, or to become normal wolves. They can also enter what they call the Ultimate or Wolf-God form, where they become "as much of the concept of a wolf, as can fit in the material world" (if it was the whole thing, there could only be one of it at a time, and it'd have infinite power; that's metaphysics, folks). They're mostly very secretive and a little scary, but they work with the vampire-hunting priests, thanks to a treaty from the 12th century. Those who know their Catholic history: three guesses who negotiated said treaty (bonus points if you say where).

Werewolves are vulnerable to silver (though some of them, called moonstruck, are only vulnerable to silver if it's combined with iron), though vampires can often harm them just by force of will, as can some humans. Vampires are basically invulnerable, though some of them can be burned, and some of them are harmed by sunlight (others lose most of their powers, others don't care). Other than that, it takes blessed or enchanted weapons to hurt them permanently, although again, force of will can do it. Hits that kill them before they can regenerate will also do it (obligatory Blade reference: "Aim for the head or the heart, anything else and it's your ass."), though the stronger the vampire, the more you gotta knock out (one of the main villains develops a speech impediment, briefly, when he gets the whole middle of his brain blown out—then he heals). Most vampire hunters use guns, and I make a point of saying everyone's preferred model (the priest uses a .44 mag S&W 629, the woman from the secular hunters uses a Glock 37 in .45 GAP 'cause she's got small hands, her partner uses an HK USP, the werewolf-hunter chick uses a Colt 1911). Yep, I like big bullets. The werewolf himself uses a sword...because he's albino and doesn't have the depth perception for a gun, at night (and can't afford a laser sight). Yes, that's right, folks, a realistically portrayed albino. It can be done, did you know?

That is Not How Fighting Works

...With a note about cultural setting.

Before I get to heaping contempt on the way thin-wristed little pusses like Joss Whedon portray combat, permit me to offer you a quote:
Wash: Psychic, though? That sounds like something out of science fiction.
Zoe: We live in a spaceship, dear.
Wash: So?

Now this is an example of why Whedon is the writing equivalent of phimosis, as in a schmuck who just won't leave. Assuming for the moment that the genre of science fiction still exists in the star-spanning 2500s—and hasn't just become a spacefaring culture's "traveler's tales"—spaceships would no more be a part of it than airplanes are a part of ours. Idiot.

Anyway. The way River fights—and it's not all Summer Glau's fault, she's much more believable in Sarah Connor—and the way Buffy fights...they hurt me, they wound me to a fundamental level. I realize Whedon spent most of his high school life in his locker, or fantasizing about Wonder Woman—or both at once—but maybe he should've asked someone who's been in a fight to choreograph his fights. Even a sparring match will do; hell, anything more combative than a slap-fight would be better.

I avoid Buffy if remotely possible, so my knowledge of the fighting in that comes only from brief scenes that I quickly averted my eyes from, ashamed to share a species with their choreographer. But I have seen Serenity several times, and permit me to say, "What the Hell, Michigan? Indeed, what the Putnam Township, Livingston County, Michigan, USA? What the entire universe allegedly run by consistent physical laws?!"

See, River's a teeny-tiny little girl. I get that Whedon, with his delusions of being a feminist, likes showing girls getting the upper hand of guys in a fight. Of course it suffers from the fatal flaw of most power fantasies: in real life, it doesn't happen. Not the way he depicts it, at least. He shows girls beating guys in fights with brute force. Sorry, that doesn't happen, especially not with a lady like Summer Glau, who's smaller than many eighth graders.

Fortunately, and actually quite intriguingly, technique is superior to brute force. A girl River's size could quite realistically hold her own, if she used jujutsu or aikijutsu. She could conceivably even pull it off if she used a hard style, if she hit the right spots. Gautama H. Buddha, Whedon, the girl's a ballerina: did it occur to you to get someone to teach her savate? It's a pressure-point-using martial art, that uses the feet! Nothing says "female empowerment" like using the pointe au foie on someone twice your size, girls—it's a fouetté to the ninth and tenth ribs. The force goes right into the liver. Let's not even discuss the reason fouetté à figure is illegal in sport savate (it involves the ending of Million Dollar Baby).

But no, rather than something that would actually look good—in martial arts, realer is better, always—Whedon's hack of a choreographer has her gently brushing people with her feet, while ridiculous meat-slapper sounds straight out of Cave Dwellers play. Really? And how come nobody told her to move her frigging feet faster? I get it, her conditioning lets her access the unused power in her muscles, like the woman who lifts the minivan (who, by the way, is sort of the "cow skeletonization time" of "adrenaline power-up"). Only guess what? She'd be moving different, wouldn't she? Also she'd hurt herself doing it much (Naruto knows that, Whedon, why don't you?).

But Whedon can't abide seeing women excel on men's terms—or rather, on the terms of the cold, hard world where physics is real, the world men have to cope with. He needs them to have superpowers, emphatically not because they enhance his story, but because he can't abide the fact that, in the real world, men are stronger than women. And that, in the real world, women make up the difference with guns. That's why his male characters are always far more offensively helpless even than girl characters who can be immobilized from the wrist. That's why guns are supposedly "never helpful", against creatures that die when you behead them (Whedon needs to meet a little thing called ".44 magnum hollow point"—I'm not picky about how vigorously he meets it, either). And that's why all his female characters have ridiculous superstrength, that's somehow greater than a man's would be with equivalent powers.

If I didn't know any better, I'd say Whedon was a troll-persona created by male chauvinists, to discredit male feminists. How the hell can you be a strawman of your own position?

Finally, why the hell do people fetishize Summer Glau's feet? She's a pretty woman generally (albeit in a very babyish, Kewpie-doll way that blows Whedon's feminist credentials to hell), but her feet are weird. They're sodding long; she's like a female Sideshow Bob.


You Are Reduced to A Blurb

...although in some of these cases, it's actually a promotion.

Thought I'd sum up writers and series—mostly ones I don't like—in brief statements. Just to belittle them. I'm like that. Gonna be a lot of links here, to keep up the flow.

George R. R. Martin and his Ice and Fire series: High Fantasy by a man who mistook FATAL for a history text.

Joss Whedon: Basically, his opinions are the gender-flipped equivalent of Dave Sim's.

Ursula K. LeGuin: She is the gender-flipped Dave Sim (to be fair, with a lot more talent)—and her "Taoism" is about as authentic as his "Christianity."

Ayn Rand: All the heartless monstrosity of Nietzsche, but none of the redeeming romanticism. To say something nice, she was pretty when she was young.

Terry Goodkind: Is to Rand what HP Lovecraft is to Nietzsche. You'll notice Lovecraft kinda invented half of modern speculative fiction, while Goodkind...is Goodkind.

Christopher Paolini: Ever hear that saying, "Maybe God put you on this Earth to be made an example of"? Paolini is this for fantasy writers and, especially, conlangers.

Frank Miller: Do I even need to say it?

Alan Moore: Damn, I thought the Tsar's men managed to kill this guy.

Joe Quesada: Though, like Miller, he really goes without saying, thought I'd point out that 'Quesada' is Spanish for 'cheesed.' Or could be, anyway.

Terry Pratchett: Is just not funny, and his crap about monarchy is just ridiculous. Considering they've got the purest oligarchy in human history, British people do not get to make fun of kings.

Gundam, and indeed any Japanese work about pacifism: At best, this is the alcoholic who wants everyone else not to drink. At worst, it's rapists favoring gun control. German and British anti-militarism, too, come to think of it.

Robert Heinlein: It amuses me that people think Starship Troopers is a creepy example of his work, with its militarism and all—there's no presented-as-completely-okay incest in that one, folks.

Hideaki Anno: "The fact grownups read manga shows our country is completely infantilized. Wait, what? I make my living selling stuff to those people? Um, manga's great!"

Harry Turtledove: So, he's qualified to write alternate history SF, right? He's got a PhD, right? Well, except he thinks the Orthodox would ever make Muhammad a saint. Never mind they get their name from the fact they deny the very Christological theory Muhammad (and Arius) espoused.


Anime and Manga Sampler

How about a brief run-through of anime and manga that caught my fancy?
  • Special A. Yes, it's shôjô, but it's excellent shôjô—and it reveals an interesting fact. Kei's total inability to be defeated (the man can even dodge slapstick) is only made tolerable, by the fact he's a complete bastard about it ("Oh, bad luck, 'Number Two.'"). If he was nice, he'd be even more insufferable than Superman.
  • Kimi ni Todoke. Okay, more shôjô—sue me. The manga was the most touching thing ever (though I live in perpetual fear of it going off the rails), and the casting for Sawako's voice actress in the anime is perfect. The stuff she says, when she's actually just nervous, but it comes off incredibly spooky? Sodding art.
  • Soul Eater. Death the Kidd rocks. Okay, his anime voice is weird, but his dad's voice is even weirder. Maka is amazing—her voice is perfect, she actually sounds 15—and how about the "temptation" scenes, in Soul's head? "Find a rule that you can break." Uh, how did the flat-out Corpse Poison Way get into a manga?
  • King of Bandit Jing: In Seventh Heaven. I spoke too soon, when I said Kamen no Maid Guy was the weirdest Japanese thing. Just in Jing Seventh Heaven's first episode: that guy getting bit in half by the unicorn-rat, and he's made of plaster—not as a plot point, just because—and all the confetti comes out. Or the dodo-pulled train, when the dodo (which can talk, and has an inexplicable horse-tail) is spurred on by the disembodied heads of Cerberus, conducted by some guy (as in, with a baton). Or the warden being a vampire—again, not as a plot point, just because. Or that little chain-smoking cherub with a machine gun. Or the creepy robots speaking faux-existential-yet-romantic Goth poetry—in English!—in Stephen Hawking voices. The limited animation really heightens the resemblance to a fever dream.
  • Dogs (Stray Dogs Howling in the Dark/Hardcore Twins/Bullets and Carnage). It's kinda Trigun-with-good-art meets Heat Guy J—and you can tell the chracters are European!
  • Tegami Bachi. Mostly just because Niche is adorable (I like feral children), although the look of the whole thing rocks out loud.
  • Hayate the Combat Butler, and Sayonara Zetsubô Sensei. South Park, Family Guy: this is how you do "transgressive" comedy, monkeys. The words "Dude, that's not right" will cross your mind about three times a chapter/episode.
  • Nurarihyon no Mago. What's better than a yôkai story? A yôkai yakuza story, that's what. This better get picked up stateside—and ideally get its own anime—or I'll sodding rampage.
  • Flags. The art combines the later CLAMP (think Tsubasa or the art in Code GEASS) with Bleach, and the story seems pretty cool so far. It takes a lot to make me like a tournament manga.
  • Rozen Maiden. Suigintô and Hinaichigo. The episode of the anime, "Stairs"—someone has been left home with siblings, man.
  • Gungrave. See the last episode of the anime, and make it the foundation of your life.


What Is A Man?

...A miserable little pile of secrets.

But enough Castlevania references; have at you!

So I recently was thinking about the issue of killing nonhuman entities in fiction. A lot of shows have it apparently being okay to kill sapient nonhumans, but not humans—even if the characters are police or military. One wonders, do people who write shows understand that cops and soldiers don't kill aliens, when they fight? They kill humans. And they learn to cope.

For instance, many seem to think it's terrible, in BSG, that people say "The Cylons aren't people, just machines." Does anybody ever think to say, "Uh, sure, they're people; they're sapient AIs. They're people who want to kill us, therefore we have the right to stop them. Cyloni delendi sunt, lupa."

The same idea comes up a lot in vampire stories; the vampire hunters being good would actually be edgy, these days—since the vampires turned into the post-Drizzt Do'urden drow:
Nale: Now the whole species consists of nothing but Chaotic Good rebels, yearning to throw off the reputation of their evil kin.
Haley: Evil kin? Didn't you just say they were all Chaotic Good?
Nale: Details.
Never mind vampires are really just very unhappy ghosts, so even when they're trying to help, they'll actually be hurting people—as they say in Korea (well, shamans say it, anyway), "The hand of the dead is a thorny hand."

Why does this crap happen?

Because people heard that people dehumanize their enemies—because apparently it's only possible to hate a nonhuman. Never mind one can actually only hate a person; seriously, when's the last time you hated an animal?

Now, I will concede that it's easier to make people mistreat others if you can make them think of those others as something other than human. But that's only because many people are too soft to cope with having to kill men—they'd have to be more grownup to want to kill their enemies man-to-man.

Incidentally, there's only two viable tests for personhood, and one's a little unworkable. The unworkable one is Rousseau's: people are defined by their free will. Unfortunately, the only way you know you have free will is your subjective experience of choosing. You can't actually tell if other people have it. Weird, huh?

The other standard, used by everyone who isn't Rousseau, is reason: anything you observe reasoning (also making abstractions) is a person, by definition. This is a test, though, not an actual definition, since angels are people but they don't need to reason (or learn, that's how much smarter than you an angel is).

Late addition (2009/10/6):It occurred to me, that a distinction must be made. What, that is, about individuals of a generally rational species (humans) who can't reason, like babies, or the brain-damaged...or Joss Whedon? They've still got the same rights (inconveniently, in that last case). See, your rights are yours by nature—you can forfeit some of them by your acts, but never by your condition. And your nature is defined by your species.

What about if you want something other than human nature as the basis of "rights"? Like this half-bright I talked to on a forum years ago, who said he had his rights as a member of the community, not as a human being—he actually denied human rights, as such.

Well, what, exactly, is to keep whatever other thing you decide to base the rights on, from withdrawing them? What's to keep the community from deciding you're not a member, and killing you?

Unless, of course, membership in the community is the right of all people...as people...or in other words, a human right.


More Uncorrelated (Though Not Uncaused) Remarks

More tidbits, my grandchildren.
  • So there's a book called 45 Master Characters: Mythic Models for Creating Original Characters. I haven't read it, and won't; I know it by references. Basically it appears to be "Try and match your characters to these archetypes from Greek myth (also Osiris and Isis, the only Egyptian gods the author can name)." Unfortunately, I can't fit any characters I like, especially none of my own, into the categories, because they're based on a series of cliches derived exclusively from books catering to a very narrow, modern demographic. These characters can only be written by, or appeal to, people who have mistaken Tamora Pierce for a thinking adult.

    Face facts: the only set of archetypes fiction needs is Jung. He's served JMS well enough, hasn't he?

  • Know what's funny? I live fairly close to the ancestral homelands of three matrilocal, matrilineal Indian tribes, and know a thing or two about them. Guess what? In these tribes—where women own the property and descent is traced through the mother—the sex roles are...exactly the same. Men hunt and fight, and women cook and clean. Oh, well, Hopi men weave, but that's the only difference. Also, men still pay bride price, despite the fact they're moving into their wives' houses—basically they get together enough money for bride-price, to show they can be trusted to take care of her land.

    One difference is, actually, that in Hopi, Navajo, and Apache culture, religion is almost exclusively a male concern. Whereas patrilocal, patriarchal cultures like the Indo-Europeans, and the Eurasian "shaman complex" (Koreans, Mongols, Finns) all had more wise women than you could shake a stick at (if that's your idea of a good time).

  • So someone was talking about a tengu character, in some series (books, I think). They said (I paraphrase), "tengu don't suffer from the 'Elf Superiority Complex' because they arise from human souls, but Western spirits would think they were tainted, because in Western culture the spirits always come from outside humanity—Easterners believe anyone can be reborn as anything (including inanimate objects)."

    You. Don't. Talk. No. More.

    Ever. Pretty please?

    See, actually, you'd only get reborn as a tengu—a yôkai and therefore, in Buddhism, a yaksha—if you committed one of the sins that gets you reborn as a preta (of which yakshas and rakshasas are varieties, in Buddhism). Reincarnation is not random—except in Dungeons and Dragons; it's determined by one's actions. Have you even frigging heard of Karma?

  • So, question no. 47 of the Fantasy Novelist's Exam:
    Do you think you know how feudalism worked but really don't?
    90% of all fantasy writers fail this one, folks.

  • I am not certain, but I think Kamen no Maid Guy may well take the prize—for now at least—in the category "Weirdest thing ever to come out of Japan." I know, I'm scared too—that's like "Worst political ideas in German history" or "Least honest Englishman."