An Antihero is not a Hero from Qward

…Wow, even I think that title was a little geeky. Wikipedia exists, if you don't know what Qward is.

Anyway, so, apparently it's become ever-so-hip to have heroes who are complete tools. I’m sorry if you think the modern antihero is more complex than that—it usually isn't. There are a number of difficulties with this.

First off, the paragonish set of perfections that the antihero is supposed to be the antithesis or deconstruction of…never existed. Hector, Achilles, Aeneas, Roland, Beowulf, Arthur—all supposed to be heroes, right? Well they're nothing like perfect, now are they? They're all quite flawed; if you made up a character with the traits of any of them, nowadays, people would tell you how hip and edgy your antihero was. Of course, this might not be a problem with antiheroes as such, but with the half-educated simply assuming that any hero with flaws is an antihero—I've even heard Spider-man called an antihero, and if Peter Parker is an antihero, Clark Kent is downright Byronic.

It seems that what distinguishes an antihero from the ruck and run of flawed heroes (who have always made up the bulk of heroes) is that a hero struggles against his flaws, and wins (even if it's a Pyrrhic victory), while an antihero loses. Which brings me to my second problem with antiheroes: they're fail. I'm sorry, I don't consume fiction to observe the fail of the person I'm supposed to be sympathizing with. I cannot conceive of why anyone would expend the effort to imagine things sucking—I don't need fiction for that, the real world furnishes me with ample, nay excessive, examples.

My biggest problem, though, is that antiheroes are supposed to be dark and edgy, and yet they're not. The antihero doesn't really question (much less make us question) our values: he questions other people's values. It is not exactly edgy in an egalitarian Western democracy to question authority, wealth, or privilege. The average antihero is basically wearing a t-shirt: One Badass Apple-Polisher. Quite seriously: find me one antihero who isn't just asserting one particular brand of liberalism, either against non-liberalism or some other brand of liberalism. Western democracies' fiction makes Socialist Realism look downright apolitical, and what's really funny is none of them even know it—lit-crit is dominated by Post-Modernism, which is all about emancipation and liberation and…you get the point. The only critics of the Stalinist literature are the Trotskyites; none of them know there's non-Marxist forms of discourse.

There were exceptions for a while, in the 50s and 60s—antiheroes who did truly vile things, really questioning their society's values. But that's not any better; Mein Kampf is not a legitimate critique of Marxism.

PS. It occurred to me as I finished that there is one antihero who really does what antiheroes are supposed to do, and it's no coincidence that so many of them are unintelligent copies of him. Neither is it a coincidence that criticism of him almost always boils down to him not being a "safe" antihero.

I refer, of course, to Dirty Harry, in the first one anyway. Harry actually questions our values, and yet, unlike all those amoral antiheroes, he only works because of his appeal to higher values. Essentially, he asserts natural morals, even where they conflict with his tribe's taboos.

But then again, they probably weren't setting out to write an antihero, just a very flawed hero.


How to Critique Films With a Hammer

So, it occurred to me that many, many films that frequently make people's "Top X Films of All Time" lists, are colossally overrated. Let us indulge in idoloclasm, shall we?
  • Silence of the Lambs. Aside from how the film is very, very gross for no real artistic reason, Hannibal Lecter is proof positive that male characters can be Sues. He's also symptomatic of something terribly wrong with our culture, that we lionize sociopaths—precisely because they've got the emotional range of monitor lizards. Personally I'd like someone to make a movie where one of these ingenious sociopathic serial killers makes the mistake of going after a Mafia boss's kid, and then learns that organization beats genius every time, despite what Ayn Rand will tell you. It'd be a populist feel-good picture, sort of Capra meets Coppola.

  • 2001: A Space Odyssey. On the one hand, it's still the single best portrayal of space travel in any movie. On the other, it doesn't actually have a story, and the "alien monoliths that accelerate evolution" (or something) are just crap, as is that whole pass-through-a-bad-screensaver and be reborn as a star-child...or...something... ending. I defy anyone to tell me why I shouldn't just fast forward to the part with the ship, then turn it off when the HAL nonsense starts. There is a very good 40 minute movie there, unfortunately it's 141 minutes long.

  • Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Watch this movie, and I dare you not to want to kill someone the next time you hear "Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head". Also, historical fiction really doesn't benefit from an intentionally ambiguous ending (nor from Goldman's incredibly anachronistic dialog).

  • Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Aside from the fact it is very, very, very, very slow, and the characters feel like they were left over from a Stephen King surplus sale (think about it), this film is named wrong. It's largely concerned with close encounters of the First, Second, Fourth, and Fifth Kind, but the encounter of the Third Kind only occurs incidental to the others. I'm probably the only one who cares, though.

  • A Clockwork Orange, Unforgiven, the Shootist, similar films with utterly unlikeable anti-heroes. Your protagonist does not have to be a saint, but he has to be sympathetic, and these ones are, pretty much, inherently unsympathetic to me. In Orange, for instance, the Ludovico technique is supposed to be just awful, but the person it's performed on plainly deserves something cooked up by Roman or Chinese corrections professionals on a really bad day.

  • Film noir in general suffers from the same issue, that characters are expected to keep our sympathy despite being utterly reprehensible—it is a weakness in a story if it makes you want to watch the protagonist die horribly, unless watching him die horribly is the point (and that's a pretty messed up kind of story). Even Casablanca has this problem—Renault extorts sex from refugees, which basically makes him a rapist (taking advantage of someone's desperation is morally equivalent to using force). He should, at the very least, have to do a hell of a lot more to earn his redemption than a little bureaucratic obstruction.
My beef with anti-heroes gives me an idea for another post, incidentally—stay tuned!


Dulce et Decorum Est

I just got Halo 3, and I haven't finished it yet, but I gotta say, this is how you do military science fiction. Indeed, this is how you do military fiction, period. So much better than, say, Avatar (Cameron's thing, I mean, not The Last Airbender), which my parents saw, and I never will, not if there's money changing hands anyway—I tried to convince them to pay for Princess and the Frog and then sneak into Avatar, but they refused.

Let us list the ways Halo succeeds, first.
  • Neither side's perfect, but one of them's definitely in the wrong (the Covenant, I mean; the Flood's not so much a "side" as it is "Satan"). Not only is this actually often the case in real wars, but it's absolutely essential to storytelling. If what TV Tropes calls the "Obligatory War Crime Scene" is essential to your idea of good war fiction, well, I don't know what to say—since I try to avoid the F-word in this blog.

  • Despite the Covenant clearly being in the wrong, and defeating them being a good thing (it's hard not to soundly endorse the things the humans yell, when you've just fought a bunch of Brutes), their basic human...ish... rights are never denied, and they're not really painted as irredeemable (though you get the definite impression the Covenant's redemption is gonna involve the Elites busting a lot of heads). "There was honor in our Covenant once," as the Arbiter says, "and there shall be again." War is properly waged for the sake of peace.

  • Master Chief is not some "maverick": he is a soldier, who takes orders and does his damn job. And the game does a very good job of showing that he'd be dead if not for his support—it's got vastly fewer "you've got to go in all by yourself" missions than any other FPS I've ever played. Actually, you can get by (on Normal at least) with letting your comrades take out a lot of the opposition; it's probably a better strategy to have the Spartan concentrate on things that need a half-ton genetically-engineered cyborg anyway.

  • The Covenant races have so much damn depth, it's almost shameful, for other SF series I mean. Consider how Grunts panic without commanders, for instance, or the way Brutes charge you once they lose their armor, or the way Brutes howl when they spot you, to attract their allies—there was more work put into these species than many much more "highbrow" works. I especially like how the Covenant are influenced by ecological niche, but not determined by it—Brutes' pack mentality actually translates into them being more individually ambitious, because achievement raises their status in the pack.
Also, the production design and cultural setting more than make up for the fact the story's not breathtakingly original. It's as firmly a genre piece as, say, a Zatoichi movie—but, like a Zatoichi movie, it's actually all the better for it. It handles all the elements just about perfectly; though I personally don't care for the "apocalyptic parasitoid plague" element, manifested in the Flood, it's handled superbly, by the simple variation of their guiding collective intelligence, the Gravemind. A thing like that makes a lot more sense when it's a sapient, cruel, telepath, than if it's just a mindless swarm.

On the other hand, is Avatar. Let's enumerate the ways it epic fails.
  1. Not only are the Na'vi perfect, the humans are only a little anthropophagy away from being Brutes.

  2. It violates the cardinal rule of military science fiction: the sides have got to have a reason to have actual wars, and these ones really don't. The humans are portrayed as very, very evil—so how come they don't just firebomb? Guess what: unobtainium is a rock. Rocks tend to survive firebombing. Failing that, the Na'vi, with their warrior-honor culture, would probably be easy prey for the slick corporate lawyers of Generic Evil Megacorp, LLC.

  3. The literal deus ex machina: the damn planet is literally alive, à la the Gaia Hypothesis, and sends its whole ecosystem against the humans. That's cheating.
There's also two other issues with Avatar, one independent of genre, and the other a general SF complaint. First is just how incredibly cliche and predictable everything is, especially the dialog, and it can also be said that pretty much every environmentalist, anti-military, white-guilt canard that exists is in this film. And they're not woven together into a genre-piece triumph, the way Halo is; they're just sorta thrown at the wall to see if they stick.

Second, actually calling it "Unobtainium" is like calling the stolen art in a detective story "the MacGuffin": it's the kind of shame that can't be borne, but can only be cleansed by hara-kiri. All they had to do was say something about magnetic monopoles—those have funky gravitational properties, and form the basis of Kzin gravity-planers.


Random Thoughts III: And the legend continues!

Well. More random observations; some people seem to like them. If you don't, well, too bad: they're not for you. They won't be as weird as Twisp and Catsby, though, promise.
  • Fascinatingly, nobody ever taught GameStop employees that the first question regarding any product, when assessing whether it is right for a given customer, is "What do you want it for?" Maybe they should make Aristotle required reading in employee orientation.

  • Tangentially related to previous, rented Infinite Undiscovery, and thought I'd point out that, at this point in the JRPG genre, not having all the twists we've come to expect from the genre—for instance if the heroes and institutions didn't have a bunch of dark secrets—would be one hell of a twist. Players would probably construct a bunch of JFK-esque conspiracy theories about how everything was actually very dark and edgy. Hell of a thing to watch, and I wish some developer would treat me to the display. Yes, that's a roundabout way of saying, "I'd like a Japanese-style RPG, as in very pretty, dramatic, and spectacular in the literal sense, without some eighth-grader's attempt at deconstruction."

  • One may sum up a few things, mainly recent ones, in terms of other things. It's an engaging pastime.
    • Saw the new Star Trek movie. Fair-to-middlin'; but what amused me is, go look at Nero and his Romulans, and their backstory...and then wonder, with me, how it is they managed not to mention Slanesh. Admittedly, the Dark Eldar were the Romulans to the Eldar's Vulcans.
    • Which reminds me, that "whole ecosystem is a super-organism and jointly attacks threats", thing, in Avatar, is reminiscent of the one way Tyranids vary from Xenomorphs. Only they're the good guys, because Cameron has gone mad.
    • Infinite Undiscovery is, in many, many ways, basically a Tales game, sort of a cross between Symphonia and Abyss.
    • Rozen Maiden is basically Gothed-Up Gash Bell, except, y'know, good.
    • Spirit Tracks is a Wild Arms game set in Hyrule, except for the game engine.

  • People often seem confused, that I like Naruto more than Bleach. I have a number of reasons, not least of which that the anime's art is vastly superior, as is the dub. But the main reason is, Naruto promised to be a shonen action series with a lot of intrigue, everything dictated by the characters' beliefs, and that's exactly what it is. Meanwhile, Bleach started as the story of a guy filling in for a shinigami, and hunting ghosts in a town full of really funny people...and then the Soul Society Arc happened. I stopped caring when Ichigo achieved Super Saiyan...I mean Bankai. Both series have insanely over-powered fights, but the difference is, Naruto sells them better. Bleach has a lot of style—Byakuya and Kenpachi, for instance, and Renji, would fit right in with the Dai Gurren-dan—but Naruto has style too, and it also has immensely complicated action, which is a pure intellectual pleasure to watch.

  • Does anyone else think GLaDOS' dialogue is distilled from things said during every messy breakup a Valve employee endured?


Let Us Go Down and Confuse Their Language

I have, of late, been dismayed at the state of con-langery (languery? langhery?), and fictional linguistics in general. You’d think this crap was hard.
  • Darmok. You know, the episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, with those aliens whose language can be translated literally by the Universal Translator, but still can’t be understood because everything in that language is expressed in references to their legends?

    Horse hockey.

    Plainly the writers got their hands on something like Basso’s Wisdom Sits In Places, about the Apache habit of expressing moral principles by reference to things that had happened in places in Apache country, and presumed mightily on their understanding of the anthropology involved. But see, Apaches can tell you what something means if you ask, and the race in “Darmok” should’ve been able to, too: otherwise they’d never be able to have learned about their legends in the first place. It wouldn’t be an issue, except that a freakish number of people are actually impressedby that episode.

  • The novel of Planet of the Apes (nowhere near as good as the movies, any of the movies) says that apes have the anatomy to speak, but they don’t, and nobody knows why. This, of course, is a flat-out lie; though apes can produce many of the same consonants as humans, they have a vastly different vocal apparatus, owing to their hyoid process being much higher in their throats, limiting the number of sounds they can make and their control over them.

  • On a similar note, the anthropomorphic wolf in Freefall apparently (I know it only by reputation, I’m rather happy to say) has been trained in ventriloquism, since wolves’ mouths are set up differently from humans’. Only…wolves (and canids generally) can produce most of the same consonants as humans. The only issues are (1) their jaws and lips are less mobile, so they might have to pronounce F labially, like the pronunciation of Phi in Modern Greek, or the F in Japanese, and (2) their tongues are probably too mushy for alveolar stops like T and D, so they’d have to pronounce them interdentally, like Spanish. Assuming the brain-ware for controlling the mouth-parts as precisely as humans do, of course.

    But wolves, like apes, have a vastly different vocal apparatus—their voices are what’s different. Ventriloquism is addressing the exact problem she hasn’t got.

  • Remember all those nay-sayers who said Avatar is Dances With Wolves IN SPACE? Yeah, probably doesn’t help that the Na’vi language is an elaborate cipher for a simplified version of Sioux.

  • The Na’vi remind me, though they don’t actually have the problem: apostrophes. Why? I mean, I use them in some of my alien languages, but I know what I’m doing: they’re glottal stops, the way they are in lots of Native American languages and Romanized Arabic. You could conceivably use them the way McCune-Reischauer Korean and Wade-Giles Mandarin do, as “hard breathings” (a usage borrowed from later forms of Greek). But the way they’re usually used is just blind, unthinking exoticism, to make words look “furrin.” The way they’re used in Warcraft, for instance, or Stargate SG-1 (linguistics being the only thing it doesn’t do better than the movie): the apostrophes are always between syllables that have no need of a break—Quel’thalas and Teal’c not only can be pronounced as Quelthalas and Tealc, that is how they’re pronounced.

  • The desire to avoid alien languages following Indo-European rules (girls’ names ending in A, for instance)—complained of by Lovecraft all the way back in the ’20s!—doesn’t have to mean alien languages can’t have rules for things like the sex of names. And yet so often, it does, people being named quite randomly (in the rare cases their names are actually words, I mean). It doesn’t have to be an ending; it could be tone, or vowel harmony, or something. In my book, for instance, the aliens’ male names have purred vowels on odd syllables (they’re felinoids, remember), while their female names have them on even syllables. And the types of names will be different, too—alien girls in my book end up being named after metals, of all things, a lot (I randomly generated my word list, using a set of sounds and some rules, and all the metals ended up being in the feminine pattern: consider the cultural-setting possibilities that creates).

  • Just in general, people trying to get in way over their heads in the matter of linguistics, trying to do strange, alien things—or rather, outré, the Lovecraftian pretentiousness of the word being absolutely perfect in this instance. How to do it right? Cherryh’s knnn, who have multiple mouths (the letters in their name probably represent the sound each mouth is saying at once), and also multiple brains, so therefore their grammar has to be conceptualized as a matrix rather than a line. That’s actually believable. How not to do it? Darmok, above. Nobody’ll blame you if your language is SOV or SVO, nominative-accusative, and agglutinating, instead of OVS, ergative-absolutive, and inflecting—there’s no reason to have a language like that other than to have it scream “Yo, I’m alien, mamma-jamma!” It’s more realistic for an alien language to be, just by coincidence, somewhat similar to the majority of Earth languages, anyway; the only way a language will be vastly different is if the aliens were trying.

  • Why do people have a problem with aliens not using our time units? Admittedly, yes, the phrase “Two of your Earth minutes” is somewhat odd, but the phrase “In your units, two minutes,” is perfectly fine, and in fact it’s better, unless everyone uses the Babylonian-derived systems for time we do. Unless your aliens created Babylonian civilization, in which case—enjoy.