Perhaps Firefly Is the One Who's Weird

Yep. Sailor Moon quote. I couldn't think of anyone else named "Hotaru" (it's Sailor Saturn's real name), and besides, there is inexplicable geek-cred attached to that series. Possibly it has to do with being of the Old Guard, that being the magical girl anime once upon a time—and one of the last ones whose target audience was what we'd call YA, not little girls or college-aged guys.

So I thought I'd add a new tag to the bloguncule; can't imagine why I didn't do it from the get-go (maybe I just didn't want to admit that I am obsessed). Namely, a Firefly tag. Toward thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering show; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell's heart I stab at thee; for hate's sake I spit my last breath at thee.

Anyway, I was reminded of the need for such a tag by a habit of mine, something I'm not proud of, of periodically googling to see if people are mentioning that Firefly is, you know, not science fiction, has bad worldbuilding, etc. And the results are dismal; a society where so many allegedly intelligent people can be taken in by that horse-hockey passed off as science fiction should be very, very worried.

E.g., someone seemed to think it was a strength of the show that they never talk about their ships' workings. Quote, "but because its just normal everyday tech to them they don't sit around talking about it (its like when you get into your car..you don't turn around, look at the passenger and say 'engaging gas combustion engine...stand by')".

Only, sorry, cupcake, but on a nuclear submarine (or aircraft carrier), that is precisely what you do, and decent spaceship engines start at "nuclear submarine" level of danger, and just keep getting worse. And the nuclear sub engines are "normal everyday tech", it's just that if anything goes wrong, men die by the hundreds, many of them vomiting teeth and blood (some of them excarnated instantly by superheated invisible steam). Also? The same (minus the radiation poisoning) was true of pre-nuclear ship engines; the boiler on a steam-train or a diesel ship is not half-assed, either. Maybe people whose sole knowledge of heavy machinery/powered vehicles is cars should not be writing about rockets. Ever hear of the trope "Every Animal Is a Dog"?

Anyway, now you can conveniently find all my significant mentions of the show by clicking a tag. Yes I know you can just use the search-bar, but if it comes to that, why have any tags at all?


The Earth Is Blue

...and if you were looking for God in space, your name better be Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, or you're an idiot. And if it is, A) holy crap are you like undead, or what? and B) you're still kinda a wacko.

That's a reference to something Yuri Gagarin said from space, by the way, presumably on orders from his government.

Thoughts upon religion, much of it related to SF and fantasy.
  • There is a quote somewhere about the Peyote Church (as it's known where I live) to the effect that, "The white man goes in his church on Sunday and hears about Jesus, and the Indian goes in his tepee and meets Jesus."

    To which one might be tempted to add, "And the Mexican goes in his church on Sunday and eats the flesh and drinks the blood of Jesus, the act without which there is no life in you (John 6:53). I'm sorry, cabrón, were you trying to make a point?"
  • Remember how I said I learned about Taoism from East Asian folk-religion? Yes, well, where I learned about Buddhism—whose philosophy I can coherently discuss, a faculty that seems almost unique to me—is just plain weird. Namely, from writing fight scenes with ninjas in them.

    See, I wanted the mantras that go with those hand-signs ninjas make. I found out that a book on Shingon Buddhist iconography had the mantras that go with each hand-sign; it also had an in-depth discussion of Buddhist eschatology, cosmology, and soteriology. I think it's also where I first encountered the allegory of the cart, which explains the teaching of anatman (Buddhist atomism), and the Mahayana commentary on it (atomism leads to infinite regress) that leads to the Mahayana version of advaita, non-duality (the Monad is the only existent thing).

    Then I got Yagyû Munenori's "Family Martial Technique Record", often referred to in the West by the title of one of its chapters, "The Life-Giving Sword": because I wanted ninja sword-techniques, and Munenori's father-in-law was an Iga ninja. Munenori was also a Zen intellectual, and he uses the technical terms of Zen metaphysics. E.g., "essence vs. function": basically Zen only has two Causes in the Aristotelian sense, essence being formal (though only with provisional reality, please remember the doctrine of anatman) and function encompassing material, final, and efficient.
  • Eywa, in Avatar (Ewoks, not Aang), is really a very laughable nature mother-goddess; as several reviewers have pointed out, why do people who live on, basically, the island from Cage of Eden, conceive of their nature-goddess as omnibenevolent? That jungle is full of hypercarnivores, and at least some of them probably pursue the "kill as many prey animals as I can, whenever I can" strategy pursued by foxes. And some of them also probably eat Na'vi, despite their Overfiend tentacle mindlink; it's tough to get your mindlink-tentacle into an animal while it's eating your viscera.

    What's most irksome is, Pandora is just a bad knockoff of Perelandra crossed with Malacandra. Eywa's its orissa, and the Na'vi are Tor and Tinidril. They even have Adam's authority over animals. Only instead of being deliberate Eden-analogy, with huge swaths of shoutout to Milton, Avatar was trying to be neo-pagan. Only, like most neo-paganism, it only succeeds in being Liberal Protestantism. Eywa's omnibenevolence is the omnibenevolence of the Christian God, who, as Supreme Being, is also the Monad, the Form of the Good. No pagan god is omnibenevolent, because pagan gods can be hurt, therefore they must protect themselves—Zeus strikes down hubristic mortals (remembering his own usurpation of Chronos), Spider Woman spirits away weavers who show signs of becoming better than her.
  • And seriously, no pagan gods are omnibenevolent; the Hindu gods (some of whom are described that way) are not purely pagan gods. Hinduism is not paganism, it is a pagan pantheon (the one described in the Rg Veda) being identified with the Supreme Being, usually either pantheistically or monistically.

    Say what you will about India, but they got a better answer than the Greeks or Romans did, to the cosmological yearnings paganism, by necessity, leaves unaddressed. The Greeks and Romans generally tended to the Stoic or Epicurean answers, neither of which is really an answer—both are really methods for dodging the question, just like Neo-Confucianism and the various "Enlightenment" attempts to discuss theological questions without reference to Christianity.
  • This is an interesting article about primitivism and the "Noble Savage" idea, though I think I dispute her using "shaman" to mean "hunter-gatherers' priests" (I prefer the usage where "shaman" means "priests of the Eurasian shaman-complex who are primarily spirit-channelers", i.e. "the kind of person we get the word from"). But it has a very interesting point about how Westerners approach "shamanism" as a spiritual technology.

    Now, there actually is a technological element to that sort of religion—they're called "medicine men" for a reason—but the difference between a Navajo medicine man and an MD is, the MD doesn't have to be on good terms with anyone but a pharmacist and the medical association to effect his cures (and he doesn't even need that second one if he doesn't mind becoming a black-market physician). A Navajo medicine man's cures are effected by beings both he and his patient must be on good terms with—or they die, as both the medicine man and the patient (and one of the dancers) did when they let the Night Chant be filmed all the way through, in 1963.
  • There is often used, by Christian writers too numerous to name, the analogy of Creation as a work of fiction and God as its author. Now, the analogy isn't perfect—fictional characters do not have free will, they do what their author makes them do (though, like God, a good author does not force them to act as they would not)—but it is certainly not without its value as a model.

    However, has anyone, using that analogy, noticed what a testament it is to the awesomeness of God? Namely, his self-insert character, who shows up people who disagree with him, has a cool secret parentage, and dies and returns from the dead, is excellent, not a Mary Sue at all.
  • Boy, it's really too bad self-aware computer programs are logically impossible, and all. Got a patron saint picked out for 'em and everything. Well, okay, so there was a saint who was alleged, in the 1373 Rosario della Vita by Matteo Corsini, to have made a mechanical man, along with all the other kooky alchemical stuff he was supposed to have gotten up to.

    I refer, of course, to Albertus Magnus, the practice-grandfather of all Thomists, as he was the teacher of our own master (what, like a kung fu analogy don't belong in Scholasticism?). And to think, Anthony Boucher was so close.
  • I know I said St. Barbara was the patron saint of hard SF, but as it turns out, Maximilian Kolbe was a rocket scientist, who designed and tried to patent a reusable space-plane.

    And not the most zealous of reductive demythologizers can deny Kolbe existed. So let's take him as the patron saint of hard SF writers. Interestingly, his Nagasaki monastery, that was famously spared the bombing, was apparently on land that was cheap because it was on the northeast side of the mountain—the inauspicious direction known in Onmyôdô geomancy (think Japanese feng shui) as the "kimon", or "ogre gate".

    The men of the East may spell the stars,
    And times and triumphs mark,
    But the men signed of the cross of Christ
    Go gaily in the dark.


De Romanicorum Theoriarum IV

Thought on fantasy and SF.
  • In the comments on one of his awesome essays on (acknowledged nutjob) Michael D. O'Brien's fantasy-alarmism, D. G. D. Davidson takes O'Brien to task for calling Ursula LeGuin Gnostic, when "if he had bothered to look it up, he could have discovered that LeGuin considers herself Taoist". But, "considers herself" or not, LeGuin is far more a Gnostic than she is a Taoist—mostly because she is a Liberal Protestant, and they've been Gnostic at least since Freemasonry (if not since Calvin, who was at least a little influenced by the Cathars).

    I feel quite comfortable in saying that LeGuin is a Liberal Protestant. She gets her Taoism, after all, from the "plain sense" of the Dao De Jing. Because as we all know, Sola Scriptura is a Chinese idea, that's Classical Chinese, right, not Latin or anything? (I get my Taoism from the study of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean folk-religion, mostly because, y' know, Taoism is explicitly a religion of tradition, and those people actually have the tradition.)
  • I'm not going into the plot, but Halo 4 is in many ways the worst in the series. No, I know, it has much more "character development"—by which you mean bitching. Sorry, I was perfectly invested in those characters from day one, maybe you all are just incapable of empathy for people who aren't screaming like Jerry Springer guests.

    But that's not actually my main issue. My main issue is, putting the Forerunner stuff front and center means the "Reclaimer", humanity's-ultimate-destiny crap comes front and center with it, and that is the worst thing about any science fiction. And I realized, it is inexplicable that that idea is popular anywhere but America, or perhaps the Anglosphere. Why? Because its fundamental conceit is Manifest Destiny.
  • Now, do not mistake me. I think there is such a thing as "American exceptionalism" (though it mostly consists of being, as I have said before, "the only good thing the Saxon dog ever did"). The West, or rather Christendom, really does have a special role in the world. And humans really are special, within the animal kingdom (though only in light of their sapience, a specialness any aliens would share).

    No, my problem with Halo (it always bothered me, but 4, being the beginning of the "Reclaimer Trilogy", has brought it front and center), as with Mass Effect and all the other "Humans are super-special awesomesauce" nonsense (also in fantasy, e.g. in Elder Scrolls), is the idea that this specialness is because we ("we" here signifying whatever subset of those groups, above) are worthy. Especially given that, generally, the things that make humanity "worthy" are the things the Enlightenment West claims are its special traits—despite the Enlightenment West, especially its Anglophone portion, having invented intentional genocide, forced famine, systematic terror-rape, and the concentration camp. (And all its good traits having already been present in Direct Capetian France.)

    In my SF, I take quite a different tack. Namely, humans suck. They are as irrational a bunch of propagandized dupes as, well, they are, in any country you care to name; the Renaissance's two-century detour into Greco-Roman cosplay means they're far behind species the same age as them (namely the zledo); and being foragers who became pack-predators means they're half-assing things that come to the other species, which began as pack-predators, quite naturally (e.g., wolves don't have that dysfunction-factory called the Oedipus complex, lacking the polygamous structure that makes it a productive breeding strategy). The only nice thing the zledo can think of to say about humans is, "And yet they stood and fought us." Even then, much of the time, humans fought like Enlightenment pacifists—which is to say like William Tecumseh Sherman.
  • And if it comes to that, in both fantasy and science fiction, why should humanity coming into its own mean the "Elder Races" must recede? The Tuatha de Danaan aren't really gods, they're conquered pre-Celtic inhabitants; I know of only one other people whose gods haven't simply "always been there"—the Navajo—and their account of the relationship is quite different. "We will give you a law so that you no longer get into trouble like this," Talking God said to them in the Fourth World (one back from this one, they have one more world than the Hopi). "But your foolishness has stained you; before we return, you will have washed yourselves." Continuing to abide by this law, and maintain their relationship to the Elder People (or Medicine People, to translate diyin dine'é literally) is, in the Navajo view, the only thing that can make further progress possible.

    In my urban fantasy, I'm thinking of having a member of one of the Elder Races (it'll probably be Thor) say, roughly, "Does a nursemaid cease to be because a child grows up? You may see her less, but that is because she has returned to her own life. And there is no need for us to give up a single thing, for you to progress. You are beasts that need to stick dead things in your orifices to live; you therefore believe that all the cosmos is a zero-sum game. Your own relations are not, and neither are your relations to us—most of the tragedies of your recent history are due to failing to comprehend this fact. Yet again your foolishness leaves a stink upon you; wash yourselves, before you speak of being our equals."
  • Leaving to one side the obvious joke Deej forbore to make, here, about Twilight being an attempt to baptize vampires (Meyer's a Mormon, vampires are dead people—you do the math), the article is just one of several (from his series, early on, of responses to Michael D. O'Brien) on Sci Fi Catholic about a disturbing trend, among Catholics of all people—who ought to know better—to resurrect a Pat Pulling-type Satanic Panic, about things like Harry Potter and Twilight.

    Sigh. Look. I know of exactly one person who got interested in the occult due to reading fantasy or playing D&D, and you're reading his blog right now. Know what? The Lesser Key of Solomon is A) total hogwash and B) quite upfront about its bizarre invoking-demons-in-Jesus'-name thing. Nobody who does not want to ally with the Peacock Angel is going to be doing it unawares...not by that route.

    As Joel Robinson once said, "Hell works better when it's a lot more subtle." Seemingly secular forces that tend to spiritual pride and selfishness are far more allied to what all human traditions consider typical of the diabolist. There is more Corpse Poison in Ayn Rand or Jacques Derrida (to say nothing of Michel "decriminalize rape" Foucault) than in all the fantasy books ever written.
  • On to lighter things. Has anyone considered that maybe the wizarding world in Harry Potter considers speakers of Parseltongue to be evil because they speak the language of Yig, the Old Serpent, last of the Old Ones defeated by the fathers of man in the ages before Hyboria or Valusia first reared towers toward the sun?

    And has anyone considered detecting Death Eaters by saying "Ka nama kaa lajerama"?
  • It occurs to me that the other flaw of SF trying to discuss humanity's ultimate destiny is, you are trying to get from science and technology something that is properly the purview of philosophy and religion. Again, that question is a screw, science is a hammer.

    Is it too much to ask that we have science fiction that is about normal human life in a different set of technological conditions? Now, admittedly, religious/philosophical questions are a part of that, if not the chief part (recall here Belloc's point about two drunken fishermen he heard in a pub discussing the evidentiary power of sense-experience—"If I saw the boat, it stands to reason the thing was there"), but science and technology provide no new answers. Future people are going to answer those questions the same way we do—because by all indications we've been answering them the same way (mostly incorrectly) since at least the Upper Paleolithic.
  • Part of the problem, I think, is the farcical conception, perhaps born during the Cold War, that future wars would be for species-survival; thus SF warfare tends to involve issues of "the destiny of mankind" purely de facto. But...why? Admittedly the genocidal war was born with your precious "Enlightenment"—so it can be expected to continue if SF is, as David Brin says, all about cheerleading for the Enlightenment—but I do believe that between the Holocaust and Glasnost we've largely got that urge out of our system, along with repudiating all the other Enlightenment hogwash of which the Shoah and the Holodomor were the culmination and natural result.

    And it's entirely possible that any aliens we encounter never had it at all; in our history it was born of the coincidental combination of Roman Imperialism (which got "reborn" in the Renaissance) with a Protestant-Fundamentalist belief that the unbeliever is the Amalekite and may be slaughtered at will.


Das Rollenspiel Zwei

Thoughts upon the RPGs.
  • So I order the new edition of RuneQuest, and, wouldn't you know, this is the one (I think the third did the same thing) with nothing to do with Glorantha. Nope, it's all generic Sword-and-Sorcery, virtually devoid of fluff. So now I'm going to have to either order an older edition, too, or else order the current edition's setting books. When it comes out with them. If it ever does.

    Rassenfrassen mitt Käse für a Magntratzerl...
  • So those of us who don't like 4th Edition D&D, or the thing they're curiously reluctant to call 5th Edition—or who, like me, had to be dragged kicking and screaming into 3rd and refuse to more than dabble in 3.5—are known as "grognards", French for "grumblers", from the nickname for the Old Guard of the Grande Armée. Well and good; they were the elitest of the Chapeau's elite units, and my style of fantasy might look like "Polish Hussar", if you squint a bit.

    But I'm curious to know, RE: the people who don't understand our issues with 4e, and who mock us for saying (what is indisputable) that it is a poor MMORPG simulator—are we allowed to call them Marie-Louise?
  • While I shall keep writing stories set there, the during-an-Ice-Age D&D setting I'd been working on and talking about herein turns out to be less than ideally suited for my actual games. In part because my players want a more swashbuckling setting, which if you think about it is actually typical of most fantasy out there—as in so many things, it's not going so much off the medieval period as off the period from say 1450-1750. Practically everything in fantasy, high or low, light or dark, has nothing whatsoever to do with the Middle Ages as historians use the term, but with the Renaissance and "Enlightenment". Come to think of it the same is true of every other facet of our culture, look at the armor in a typical portrayal of King Arthur.

    Part of it is that one of my players is my brother, and he's a colossal fan of the Slayers anime and books. Which, I mean, no argument there, though he did commit the minor blasphemy of saying it's better than FMA. Nevertheless, Slayers is a setting that has more in common with a pirate movie (or a samurai flick) than with Conan—though Conan did have its anachronistic touches (I think it set the precedent of having, e.g., Pharaonic Egypt and the American frontier side-by-side; then again Hobbits are 19th-century Englishmen who live a few weeks' ride from 12th-century Byzantium, so Tolkien did it too.)
  • This is either the coolest thing I've ever read on the internet, or somewhere high in my top 10. It's called "Calibrating your expectations", and it's about the realities D&D (3e) stats represent. It involves things like how hold portal is like a deadbolt, while arcane lock (or wizard lock, for you my fellow briscards) is like a door-bar.

    A guy's complaints about the "unrealistic" encumbrance rules are dealt with handily, namely by pointing out that, given average Strength, the load he describes meets the definition of "medium load", which impairs movement precisely as the guy says his movement was impaired. I don't know, I just eat that sort of thing up.

    Also? Einstein is apparently just a 5th-level Expert. Those really high levels in things represent people of legendary skill, or superhuman beings like Ningauble of the Seven Eyes. The village blacksmith is just a 1st level character; between his one feat, namely Skill Focus (Craft (blacksmithing), of course) and having an assistant, he can Take 10 and do masterwork items. A 3rd level blacksmith doesn't need an assistant. And a dwarf's +2 to Craft checks RE: smithing means he can do masterwork items, no assistant, at 1st level.
  • Why do we—by "we" I here mean aficionados of 3e—bother with saying "arcane spellcaster" (or "arcanist") and "divine spellcaster"? Take a page out of 2e, and call wizards and sorcerers "mages" (this, of course, switches around 2e's use of "mage" and "wizard"—all mages were wizards but not all wizards were mages, the alternative being specialists); druids and clerics, similarly, become "priests".
  • I seem to recall somewhere that, in converting 2e characters to 3e, wild mages become sorcerers. Only, read up on wild magic, would you? Their spellcasting is "wild" because they're tapping the thing at a deeper, more uncontrollable level; they're all about the theoretical underpinnings of magic, and a sorcerer's almost Suzuki-violin approach wouldn't even work with their spells. Did you ever notice how many quantum physics references there were, in wild-magic related stuff? The material component of "There/Not There" is a model cat and a small wooden box, just for one example.
  • Hey, protip: try to keep Monster/Monstrous Manuals out of the hands of your players. Why? This.
    Me (DM): 'Hello,' the man says. 'I didn't expect to meet anyone else down here in the Underdark. Well, except drow, deep dwarves, and mind flayers, but I didn't want to meet them.' He looks you over, seeming to pay particular attention to your equipment.

    Player 1 (bariaur wild-mage): I bet he's a thief.

    Player 2 (elf mage/thief): He's a deep dragon. Anyone you meet underground should be assumed to be a shapechanged deep dragon until proven otherwise. Look, here in my copy of the Monstrous Manual.

    Me: [Entirely too long of a pause, making it quite clear just how busted I am].
    This is the same person (my other sister) who thinks you can conjure hedgehogs to lay eggs in dragons' brains, and asks, of every single person in Shadowdale, if they are Elminster. But the precise habits of obscure Forgotten Realms monsters? Those, she knows in her sleep.

    And I had to allow her character to act on that knowledge, "the character doesn't know everything the player knows" couldn't save me. Her character's father was a moon elf (Forgotten Realms high elves), but her mother was a drow refugee on the surface. She has an RP excuse to know about deep dragons, darn her eyes ("with knitting needles"—her phrase, not mine).
  • I think, even with that expectation-calibrating essay, up there, that I'm still gonna use the 3.5 Unearthed Arcana "gestalt classes" system. They just give more options. I might have to revise some things; I don't know if this campaign will have all the demihumans being in PC classes, for instance (with the gestalts being only as common as PC-class members are in a typical campaign world).

    Another thing I thought I'd do is give elves a penalty to Wisdom, rather than Constitution. I never liked the CON penalty in the first place—Tolkien's elves never get sick and essentially never tire; elves' Con penalty was either artificial "game balance" or a bizarre misinterpretation of the typical elf traits. I thought I'd have it play out as wood elves being foul-tempered and slightly paranoid (as forest-beings generally are in legend), and the high (or "gray" in standard D&D terms) be easily distracted (and attracted) by things they found beautiful or intriguing.