Of Course There’s a Full Moon on Halloween in 2020

There’s no shortage of frightening things in 2020. This is the year that gave us a horrible global pandemic and the stressful new routines of physical distancing that come with it, murder hornets, double hurricanes, the worst economic crash since the Great Depression, locust swarms, and the most agonizingly awful US election cycle in my lifetime, to name only a few. With all of these awful things overwhelming our usual means of coping, it’s natural that people will look for ways of blowing off steam.

Holidays that let us shed some of the usual rules of polite society are one way people can get a break from the stresses of life. “Festivals of reversal,” as they are sometimes called, can be a psychological release as we get to leave ourselves behind for a day and become someone else. Halloween is one of the best examples of such a holiday for much of modern US culture, a day when the normal rules are relaxed, when adults get to be childish and children get to take candy from strangers.

This year, Halloween falls on a Saturday. What’s more, that night will have a full moon providing plenty of light for nighttime revels. In an ordinary year, that combination would set us up for some wild shenanigans on Halloween night. I’d be stocking the candy bowl and keeping an eye out for mischievous young hooligans.

But this is no ordinary year. This year, big parties and nighttime rule-breaking are more than just a neighborhood nuisance; they could spread deadly disease, overwhelm already stressed hospital systems, and leave a death toll in their wake. Halloween 2020 presents a concentrated version of the dilemma that has dogged us all year: the things we need most to psychologically endure this crisis—distraction from the reality around us, uninhibited human contact, an escape from stringent social rules—are the very things that prolong the crisis and make it more deadly.

I sympathize a lot with anyone who feels like they need the little vacation from daily life that Halloween offers, but I’m frightened of the consequences. Stay spooky, everyone, but stay safe, too.

Image: Grinning Halloween lantern by Kim Støvring via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Here there be opinions!

Doctor Who Has a Villain Problem

Doctor Who‘s go-to villains are boring. Daleks are boring. Cybermen are boring. The Master is extra super boring with a side of tedious.

The problem with these staples of Doctor Who is not that they are bad villains in themselves. Omnicidal mechanized life forms like the Daleks and Cybermen are a staple of science fiction. Star Trek has done a lot of good work with its Borg, who are just Cybermen with the serial numbers filed off. (For anyone wondering, Cybermen first appeared in the original Doctor Who in 1966, the Borg on Star Trek: The Next Generation in 1989.) As for the Master, you can hardly throw a sonic screwdriver in sci-fi without hitting a gloating egomaniac who acts as a foil to the hero. The problem with these villains is that they are a bad fit for Doctor Who.

A large part of Doctor Who‘s charm is the pacifism of its hero. As a hero who refuses to pick up a weapon and is always looking for a peaceful solution, the Doctor is, if not entirely unique, a refreshing rarity in science fiction, a genre often bristling with laser blasters and photon torpedoes. Through all the character’s many regenerations, this has been one of their defining characteristics: they approach the unknown with wits and words, not guns and bombs. An explorer, a tinkerer, a scientist, a detective, a negotiator—the Doctor is anything but a warrior. They are at their best not fighting an enemy but solving a problem.

Some of the great episodes of Doctor Who‘s new incarnation have been about precisely that: solving a problem. Even when the Doctor is up against some opposing force, they approach it not as an enemy to be beaten but as a riddle to unravel. Antagonists like the nanogenes that turned blitz-era Londoners into gas-masked zombies in “The Empty Child” / “The Doctor Dances” (season 1) or the clockwork robots haunting Madame de Pompadour in “The Girl in the Fireplace” (season 2) were not evil, just malfunctioning technology that the Doctor could fix or disable. Some of the Doctor’s great opponents have indeed been evil, or at least menacing, like the Weeping Angels in “Blink” (season 3) or the mysterious word-copying entity of “Midnight” (season 4), but the Doctor finds ways to defeat them that don’t involve fighting. These kinds of episodes are what we come to Doctor Who for.

Daleks and Cybermen are different. They cannot be negotiated with or peacefully fixed. They are, as written, super-powered beings whose only goal is to wipe out all other life in the universe. The only sensible response to them is simply to blast them to bits with whatever guns or bombs you have on hand until there is nothing left of them to blow up. If the Doctor did that, though, they wouldn’t be the Doctor any more, and we would lose what we love most about the character. Which means that whenever Daleks or Cybermen show up, you can count on one of two things happening: the Doctor will magically jigger together some handwavy way of getting rid of them without killing them (which is unsatisfying), or some other character will blast them to bits with whatever guns or bombs they have on hand (which rather feels like cheating). Daleks and Cybermen just don’t make for good Doctor Who.

(Also, Doctor Who has really stretched the limits of how much I can tolerate villains with annoying voices who narrate everything they do out loud, but that’s a separate issue.)

The Master is even worse. Daleks and Cybermen at least have coherent goals, however generic. The Master seems to exist simply to annoy the Doctor. Every atrocity they commit, every murder and overly-complicated scheme, serves only one purpose: to make the Doctor feel bad. The Master’s entire motivation stems, as far as I can tell, from one time when they and the Doctor were both Time Kids and the Doctor missed a play date, or something—that is all the depth the character ever gets (at least in the new series). There is no problem here for the Doctor to solve. Nothing to fix or negotiate, just an obsessed stalker whose go-to move is genocide. The best response to the Master would be to shoot them as soon as they turn up and keep shooting them until they run out of regenerations, but that’s not Doctor Who and I wouldn’t want Doctor Who to become a show where that would happen.

Doctor Who is all about saving the day without resorting to violence. Pitting its hero against enemies who allow for no non-violent solution defeats the purpose of Doctor Who. Give us more mysteries, more problems, more foes who can be diverted or negotiated with, not more implacable monstrosities.

Image: Cybermen confront a Dalek, from “Doomsday” (Doctor Who, season 2) via IMDB

Here there be opinions!

When Your Favorite Creator Has a Bad Take

It happens sometimes, especially in today’s social media world: the creator of something you love, be it a book, movie, tv show, comic book, or some other work of art, has a bad take. We’re not talking about your garden-variety difference of opinion. (Despite what the Internet would have you believe, people who like pineapple on their pizza and people who don’t can, in fact, live in peace together.) We’re talking about a serious bad take, one that denies the fundamental humanity of a whole group of people or supports acts of violence in the real world. What do you do then?

The first steps are obvious enough. You can speak out against them, whether online or off. You can affirm your support for the people they targeted, whether publicly to the world at large or privately to the people you care about.

You can watch how the creator responds, whether they learn and grow from the experience or double down on their bad ideas. A lot of us have had to learn to challenge the bad ideas we absorbed from the culture around us, and most of us didn’t do it in public with an audience of millions. It’s fair to say that if someone has reached an age where they are producing art for a mass audience, they should really have gotten past basic prejudices and misjudgments, but if somehow they haven’t, it’s better that they do it now than not at all. Whether you find their actions convincing or sufficient is up to you. You don’t owe anyone your forgiveness, no matter what they may say or do. You’re also not wrong if you choose to give it. You are the only one who gets to decide what is enough for you.

If someone’s bad ideas are egregious enough to merit it, you can stop giving them money. Don’t buy their latest book or a ticket to their new movie. This may get complicated if their work is tangled up with the work of other people whose good work you still want to support, but loss of revenue is one of the biggest pressures you can put on a company or organization to drop a problematic actor or cut ties with a writer who has spewed hate. You can stop giving them attention, too. Unfollow or even block them on social media. Don’t give clicks to articles or posts about them or their latest work.

What about the works you already have? Do you have to clear their books off your shelves or throw away the DVDs? You can, of course, if you feel it’s right for you. If your enjoyment of those pieces of art would forever be tainted by their creator’s asinine or prejudiced comments, then there is no need for you to keep them. Like forgiveness, it’s a personal decision you can only make for yourself.

But what if you want to keep them? What if there are still things you love about those works, despite their creator’s attack of foot-in-mouth disease? How do you continue to enjoy them?

I spend a fair amount of my time reading books that were written by people who were absolutely wrong about a lot of important things ranging from the intellectual capacity of women to the morality of slavery. Much of this I read simply for my work, not for pleasure, but there are ancient texts I enjoy, some I have read over and over again for sheer delight, like the masterfully-told stories of Herodotus, the heroic deeds of the Homeric epics, Sappho’s longing love poetry, Martial’s wickedly funny epigrams, and others. Even without having a social media feed from any of these authors, I am confident that most of them believed in things we would find abhorrent today. How can I continue to enjoy their work?

The art is not the artist. This is the principle known in literary criticism as “the death of the author” (which is less dire than it sounds). What we create exists outside of ourselves. Once an author publishes a novel or a director releases a movie, their creative work is done. It is up to the audience to decide how they will receive and understand the work. Our experiences of art are not dictated wholly by the creator’s intentions but are a complicated interplay of our own thoughts and emotions with the artist’s ideas. Those experiences are personal and unique, and they do not depend on the moral qualities or opinions of the artist.

When I go back to the Iliad, I know that I am reading the product of a culture whose values were sharply different from my own on gender roles, the morality of war, the acceptability of slavery, and many other fundamental questions. It is impossible to read the epic without facing all of those differences. Many of them are so deeply woven into the story that it simply would not be possible to tell the story without them. The Iliad is the story of male warriors fighting over the possession of a beautiful woman; without any of these elements, it would cease to be the Iliad. And yet there are things to enjoy in the epic, without excusing or ignoring the cultural assumptions it is grounded in. Some of the most powerful passages in the work are those in which the humanity of individual characters comes through despite the cultural baggage around them. Helen has moments in the Iliad where we see her fear, her grief, her frustration and anger about the war being fought for her, and we glimpse her as a whole person, just as complex as any of the warrior-heroes around her. The final image of Achilles and Priam weeping together over their lost loved ones is a moving expression of the power of human compassion to overcome hatred. There is beauty and value in these things, and I can enjoy them while still being aware of the context around them.

If there is a book you love but whose author recently revealed themselves as a bigoted ass, it’s all right for you to still love the book and treasure the memories of how it made you feel when you first read it. Your experience of that book belongs to you, not to the author. Once their words and ideas entered your imagination, they became part of you, as much as any other experience in your past. You don’t have to excuse the author for their bad take, but neither does their bad take have to tarnish your enjoyment of their book.

It’s also okay if you decide that you can’t pick up that book again. You are the only person who knows what is right for you.

Here there be opinions!

Quotes: You Shall Not Follow a Majority in Wrongdoing

As most of you probably know, there are currently multiple protests against racism and police brutality after the killing of George Floyd in the U.S. that have spread worldwide.

I have so many things to say, but I’ll spare your eyeballs because there would be a FUCKING INCONCEIVABLE ABUNDANCE OF EXPLETIVES. But if there’s a pared-down version I want to say to my fellow white folks, especially if you’re a Christian, it’s this:

“You shall not follow a majority in wrongdoing; […] you shall not side with the majority so as to pervert justice.”

– Exodus 23:2, after The New Revised Standard Version of The Bible

I was brought up Christian and my grandfather was a policeman, and I cannot fucking fathom how many white people are apparently fucking fine with police essentially executing BIPOC or attacking peaceful demonstrators without any consequences.

If you believe you are a Christian, especially a white one, especially one working as a police officer, there’s only one side in all of this that you can possibly take.

For example, if you think it’s acceptable to

then you are a part of the problem. No ifs or buts.

If you are a police officer and said yes to any of the above, you are, in actual fucking fact, a member of a violent cult and an oathbreaker, and belong in jail.

(No, rioting isn’t okay, but I do understand a little where all the anguish and rage is coming from.)

Comments are closed. This is not a subject that is even supposed to be under discussion.

Here there be opinions!

Living Vicariously Through Social Media: A Wheelchair Scooter

Oh my goodness—I am so (so, so, so) overly excited about this wheelchair scooter called Pendel:

NimbleDearArchaeopteryx-mobile via Videopress.com

It’s by Huka, a Dutch company. And it’s SO. AWESOME! Just wheel your chair up the little ramp, stabilize the chair, secure your stuff, lift the ramp up behind you so it’ll form a low “back wall” for the wheelchair area, and go! Aaaaaa!

io9 Tom Hiddlestons Loki Whee Gif

In a sense, I’ve been ridiculously lucky so far—none of my chronic conditions have affected my mobility. I’ve never even sprained a limb, let alone broken one. I have been operated on, though, although fairly lightly and fairly late in my life. However, that one experience was enough to convince me of the absolute, unadulterated value of mobility aids of various kinds, including accessible building.

Twitter Adam Holisky Picard Full of Win

Which reminds me: I just cannot (can-NOT!) understand people who gripe and complain about having to get help, including walkers or wheelchairs or whatnot. Isn’t the tech there precisely to enable us to function more independently for longer, just like glasses?!? Aren’t we social animals who help one another???

Expanse Tedious

(Badly fitted or broken aids, on the other hand, are the worst and should be burninated. And don’t even get me started on how despicably some people choose to treat disabled people who are just out and about, minding their own business…! #JustAskDontGrab)

One thing’s for sure: whenever I get to the stage that I need various aids, mobility or otherwise, BRING ‘EM ON!

Twitter ItsJustJords Sitting Frog

Pendel found via Nicola Griffith.

Images: Tom Hiddleston as Loki whee gif via a comment on io9.com. Captain Picard Full of Win via Adam Holisky on Twitter. “Tedious” screenshot from The Expanse season 3, episode 4, “Reload”. Sitting frog via ItsJustJords on Twitter.

Hey, look! We found a thing on the internet! We thought it was cool, and wanted to share it with you.

On the Finicky, Fussbudgety Facts of Faction Fighting in WoW

Writing on the patch 8.2.5 story for the World of Warcraft Battle for Azeroth expansion, Robert “Bobby” Davis blogging at Kaylriene puts into words what I’ve long thought: while I understand the need for a company to put the best positive spin into talking about their own products, Blizzard really needs to stop deluding themselves about the quality of their storytelling. Here’s Kaylriene on the topic:

“Saurfang says what I’ve thought about the writing of this story the whole time – the faction conflict is stupid and outdated, because Blizzard tries to pretend there is a depth and nuance to it that doesn’t exist in their writing. The Horde are villains, outright – every time this cycle comes about, the Horde does something awful and atrocious that pushes the world into conflict, the Horde leaders who suddenly have conscience about it reject the action and rebel, we storm up to Orgrimmar to depose whomever the despot is today, and then we move on until the next time it happens. He makes clear in-lore precisely what I’ve felt about the faction conflict the whole time – it was set dressing that no longer serves a meaningful purpose.” [emphasis added]

I’m not inclined to be generous to a story that repeats the same gimmick ad nauseam. Granted, you don’t need to look farther than our own human history—and not very far at that—to find nigh-endless faction conflict. But this is supposed to be fantasy, a genre that can have anything happen.

It’s been years since I logged back to WoW for the story—these days I play for completely different reasons than following the plot du jour. Not being a PvPer the faction conflict never was a big draw to begin with, but it used to have at least somewhat interesting turns.

Now, I also understand the difficulty of a rotating team trying to keep up with past writing, storylines, character arcs, details, all of it. There is, however, a lot to be said for storytelling, continuity, and proactive quality control, especially in case of a billion(!)-dollar tech company, lest you end up looking rather like an incompetent fool.

Flickr Robert WoWScrnShot_091106_234735

Image: World of Warcraft screencap by Robert on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Of Dice and Dragons is an occasional feature about games and gaming.

Celebrating International Women’s Day with a Captain Marvel Viewing

March 08 is International Women’s Day. Very appropriately, we are celebrating by going to see Captain Marvel!

IMDB Captain Marvel Eyes Horizontal

I’m hoping it’ll be as awesome as the trailers look!

To the people complaining that this version of Marvel is too political and therefore massively off-putting, I have only one thing to say.

(Long post warning.)

Read the whole post.

I Miss Episodes

I turned 40 last year, and I think it’s starting to affect me: I’m beginning to feel the urge to rant about kids these days and how everything was better when I was young. So be warned, there is some curmudgeonliness ahead, but I do have a point here.

I’ve been thinking lately about why I find a lot of contemporary tv so unsatisfying. It’s not that tv shows are bad now. It’s been aptly said that we live in a golden age of television. Freed from the constraints of syndication and network time slots, modern shows have dared to tell bigger, more complicated stories. The proliferation of cable channels and online services producing their own original content has meant a chance for a wider range of productions, from big-budget crowd-winners to oddball side projects. All of this is to the good.

At the same time, we’ve lost something in the modern approach to tv-making: episodes. It used to be that a season of a tv show was one or two dozen short stories, each told over the course of an hour or half hour (or twenty to forty minutes, on commercial television). Nowadays, a season of television is a ten-hour movie with arbitrary breaks for theme music. Stories are not told in an episode but slosh over to the next hour or two before there’s any resolution; meanwhile, another story has started going at the same time and continues to slosh forward on its own. Every tv drama has now become a soap opera.

I miss shows that had actual episodes, each a story unto itself with a beginning, rising action, climax, and denouement all in one sitting. As much as that format could sometimes be limiting, it also had its artistic virtues. It forced the action to move along at a brisk pace. It created a sense of urgency that shaped the storytelling. There was a feeling of satisfaction that came with watching the problem of the episode be resolved. Modern shows tend to wallow in characters’ unresolved feelings, pad their running time with filler, and dive down narrative dead ends, much of which would have been cut short in properly episodic television.

Of course, lack of satisfaction is the point. Now that we can stream any show we want any time we want, the economic pressures have changed. Rather than keep us coming back every week to see more commercials, the business imperative of tv is now to keep us from clicking away to another streaming service. While new content models have freed tv from some artistic constraints, they have imposed new ones that are just as limiting. It is now tv’s job to never give us satisfying endings lest we wander off to do something else.

I do appreciate tv shows that have continuity and ongoing stories. I wouldn’t want to go back to the days when the end of an episode meant a complete reset back to status quo ante, but continuity can coexist with episodes. Shows of the 1990s like Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Babylon 5, X-Files, and Stargate pulled it off. In these shows, episodes mostly told self-contained stories, but they also remembered what had happened in previous episodes. Characters grew and changed, major plot twists had ongoing consequences, and big multi-season arcs played out a piece at a time, and yet when the credits rolled at the end of an episode, you still had the satisfaction of a resolution.

I wish we had more shows like that these days.

Here there be opinions!

“At Least It Made You Feel Something”

I have a rant.

There is one phrase I hate to hear more than any other from authors, scriptwriters, game designers, and other creative people: “At least it made you feel something.” It is a phrase that is sometimes trotted out when audiences voice hurt, anger, or annoyance over how a story that they were emotionally invested in turned out, and it is a load of crap.

We all understand that no story is going to satisfy all audiences. Good stories move us, and sometimes they move us to tears or to rage. Some people want stories to leave them angry or sad, and that’s as legitimate as wanting a story to leave you smiling. But a good story should not leave you hurt or annoyed.

There are good ways for creators to respond to upset audiences (which, I note, is not the same as responding to trolls—that’s a different game altogether). They can say: “I’m sorry, I’ll try to learn from this experience and do a better job in the future.” They can say: “This was the story I wanted to tell, but clearly it wasn’t the story you wanted to hear, so you should find a different story.” They can say: “I think this story matters and I don’t care that you didn’t like it.” All of these are appropriate responses. They are honest and respect the validity of peoples’ feelings, even the ones we don’t share. Even no response at all is perfectly acceptable; no creator owes their audience any engagement they don’t feel like giving.

But if a creator does choose to respond to criticism, “At least it made you feel something” is no kind of response at all. What’s wrong with it?

It sets the bar absurdly low

Good stories make us feel things, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t matter what a story makes us feel as long as it makes us feel something. To put it another way: if I kicked you in the shins, it would definitely make you feel something, but you would be perfectly justified in saying that that wasn’t the feeling you wanted.

It dismisses criticism

Criticism is legitimate. People have a right to have opinions about your story, whether you agree with them or not. Simply dismissing all criticism with “It made you feel something” denies that what your audience feels is just as relevant as how strongly they feel it.

It is self-congratulatory at best, selfish at worst

Reacting to an audience’s complaints with “It made you feel something” is a reach-around self-compliment. Even worse is if you actually take satisfaction in your ability to make others feel bad.

It betrays a lack of belief in the merits of the story

“It made you feel something” is close kin to “There’s no such thing as bad publicity.” In a social media world, creators may think that making their audience angry enough post online tirades about their work is the cheapest advertising they can get, but it is also a signal to the audience that the creators don’t care enough about their work or don’t have enough confidence in it to sell it on its own merits.

Stories often make us feel things. That is a huge part of why we read, watch, and play them. To open a book, watch a movie, or play a game is to entrust your feelings to another person for a time, and we have every right to speak up when we feel that our trust has been abused.

If what I feel about your story is hurt that you killed my favorite character, frustrated by the direction of the plot, or annoyed that you railroaded me into playing a villain, you don’t have to agree with me. You don’t have to take any account of my feelings at all if you don’t want to. But don’t waste my time with: “At least it made you feel something.”

Here endeth the rant.

Here there be opinions!

Quotes: Violence Is a Tool That … Begs You to Use It Again and Again

“Violence is a part of our trade, yes. It is one tool of many. But violence is a tool that, if you use it but once, it begs you to use it again and again. And soon you will find yourself using it against someone undeserving of it.”

– Ashara Komayd, former operative for and prime minister of Saypur in City of Miracles by Robert Jackson Bennett

Yup. I’ve been thinking along similar lines with regard to the racism in the U.S. and the ridiculous, racist non-reasons some racist-ass whites justify their calling of police on people of color, especially blacks. It’s racist, wasteful, racist, reprehensible, racist, entitled, racist, cruel, racist, wrong, and racist. It has to stop.

Bennett, Robert Jackson. City of Miracles. New York: Broadway Books, 2017, p. 177.

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.