Straight and Arrow

Stephen Amell as the Green Arrow

While I consume more than my fair share of media, I’ve generally been rather sparing with my choices for regular TV viewing.  I tend to wait for a show to have a solid first season in reviews and a strong beginning to a second before I even watch the pilot on the web.  Good writing is important to me, as are interesting and well-acted characters, although I gravitate to the more fantastic of the settings, even if that means passing up on some quality “real-world” dramas.  So Battlestar Galactica and Buffy the Vampire Slayer are still my favorites, and I have yet to watch Mad Men, Breaking Bad, or Dexter, although they are on my eventual list.  The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones are my current indulgences.  A couple of friends who know my tastes suggested I give Arrow a look.

Arrow is based on the DC superhero Green Arrow, who in the comics is essentially a Batman-like “mere mortal” vigilante with a more limited arsenal (A bow and some trick arrows), a Robin Hood costume, a blond goatee, and leftist politics.  And like Batman, the Emerald Archer’s secret identity, Oliver Queen, is a billionaire playboy who runs a technology mega-corporation.  The TV adaptation on the CW (for those of you who, like me, tend to avoid network television, the CW was created as a merger of the WB and UPN) stars Stephen Amell as the titular character with a tone and setting that is attempting to capitalize on the success of Smallville, the soap-operafication of Clark Kent’s pre-Superman years, as well as the recent gritty reboots of Superman and Batman on the big screen.

As a kid I was only a very casual comic book reader, preferring sci-fi and fantasy novels.  When I was about 8, though, I was an eager fan of the Superman and Batman live actions shows on TV as well as the Superfriends cartoon (which has not aged well – kids’ cartoons have improved so much since the era of Hanna Barbara mass production).  As a teenager, some friends introduced me to Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore’s The Watchmen, both of which were regarded as signaling a new era in which comic book writing was to become more sophisticated and aimed at a broader and older (albeit still largely male, at the time) audience.  Published in 1986, these works tackled directly some of the thornier issues generated by the ideas of trans-humanism and vigilantism that have always undergirded the genre but had rarely been addressed with such serious depth.  Each imagined a near-present dystopia on the verge of nuclear war in which the US government was dominated by right-wing authoritarians who had either co-opted superheroes for military objectives or forced them into retirement.

Although the character dates back to the 1940’s, my first real exposure to the Green Arrow was his cameo toward the end of The Dark Knight Returns.  In the final chapter, Batman has violated his enforced retirement and has failed to comply with the demands of a US government on the cusp of nuclear war with the USSR.  Superman, now a co-opted agent of the US military is ordered by President “Reagan” to bring down the masked vigilante.  The Green Arrow, who had apparently served time in prison for being a commie anarchist and has always despised Superman’s blind obedience to a rigid legalism, agrees to help Batman in the final duel, contributing a single kryptonite arrow.  Superman wins, but Batman has faked his own death in order to continue or a more clandestine vigilante crusade against an increasingly dictatorial government.  On further inspection, I learned that at least since late 60’s, the Green Arrow has often been a critical voice exposing the ethical blind spots of other heroes in the DC pantheon, in particular that a “law and order” approach to crime often ignores or exacerbates some of the underlying causes of crime, such as economic inequality, racism, and the corruption of the wealthy.  This strikes me as incredibly rich source material for a contemporary series, especially in an era of Occupy, the One Percent, and unchecked government surveillance.

THE SKIVVY ON THE SERIES

Arrow boasts a strong ensemble cast.

So how does Arrow measure up?  For network television, it performs incredibly well, in my opinion.  But before praising its strengths, I would have to point out that it does have a few weaknesses that hold it back from being truly excellent.  Most of these stem from its network, which seems to aim most of its programming at what the executives perceive as the interests of its target demographic: late teens, early 20’s (despite its darker and more violent presentation).  Much of the character development occurs in night clubs, raves, the foyers of mansions, or during shopping trips.  On the one hand, the milieu of Oliver Queen the playboy billionaire ought to be spoiled, hedonistic, whiny, and callow.  But even the characters from more modest means, such as Roy Harper, are perfectly-coiffed, groomed, gelled, and sporting Abercrombie & Fitch.  I’m not sure I want to watch Oliver Queen 90210.

For a hero punishing the rich and powerful who are exploiting the poor and vulnerable, he actually knows very little of the exploited poor and vulnerable.  Oliver tells us in the voiceover that the bad crime boss of this week has cheated hundreds of poor, elderly retirees of their pensions, but we never actually see the lives of and consequences for the actual victims.  Laurel, Oliver’s once-and-future love interest, works as a pro bono attorney for the poor, but most of her clients come in looking like Stew and Margaret from the McMansion down the street.  The second season seems to be rectifying this a bit by setting more scenes in the devastated Glades (the ghetto), but it’s hard to see how Oliver can develop a social conscience without actually witnessing the suffering of the underclass firsthand (apparently in the comics, he eventually loses his fortune and has to actually live on the streets in the Glades – perhaps we’ll see this?)

While the writers spin some solid long-term arcs, the episodes usually follow a “villain-of-the-week” format, which was a criticism often made of Smallville (which I did not watch myself, except an episode here and there) and other successful WB hero series, such as Charmed.  For some unexplained reason, this seems to be a network gospel that successful cable series have wisely jettisoned.  In the Internet era, it’s easy to catch up on what you missed; you don’t need a weekly reset button returning us to status quo ante.  Not that all shows need to have ongoing plots like The Walking Dead (but note each episode in The Walking Dead still explores a distinct theme or character dynamic that marks it as a cohesive “chapter.”  Longer and more complex stories need not sacrifice formal episodicity.)

Fortunately, the writers have been able to mitigate some of the weaknesses of an episodic series by weaving two parallel story arcs into each season, taking an approach similar to Buffy or Lost.  One is set in the “present,” which has allowed the story to dive in medias res into the adventures of the Vigilante, or the “Hood,” as the police have dubbed him.  Experienced as ongoing flashbacks, the second story arc follows Oliver’s origin story.  Marooned for five years on a deserted island in the North China Sea (that has been blessed by foliage that looks suspiciously like that of British Columbia) after his father’s yacht has been sabotaged, Oliver is rescued by a bad-ass fugitive martial artist, pursued by paramilitaries set on provoking a war between the US and China, and slowly trained to leave his pampered, spoiled life behind to become a highly-trained hunter.  These flashbacks have also served to showcase Stephen Amell’s acting abilities.  While I think there are still ways for him to grow as an actor, it’s fun watching the contrasting physicalities of the high-pitched, slumping, shuffling brat; the tightly-wound, emotionally-restrained (stunted?), more mature Oliver; and the rageaholic, growling, unforgiving Hood.  This guy has a lot of potential as a leading man, even if this show doesn’t last long.

The promise of this scene was apparently what got John Barrowman to sign up as the Season One villain.

Have I mentioned the abs?  If you want constant female nudity, profanity, and sex, go watch HBO, which seems to contractually obligate their shows to show a certain quota of female flesh per week.  But if you want abs, Arrow is where you go.  Nearly every episode has Oliver’s impressive workout regimens (which Amell apparently does himself) interspersed with the drama.  I suppose the CW is going for the female (and gay) demographic here, since the superhero setting and pyrotechnic action ought to attract the young male demographic well enough.  But in Season 1, there was only a single, discreet sex scene – pretty tame even for network TV.  So the show is “sexy” without being actually sexy (more on that later).

Finally, while Oliver is the central pillar of the narrative, the show has a strong supporting cast of characters (and actors).  It’s very much an ensemble show, reminiscent of Buffy in some respects (although it has yet to reach such heights!).  In the comics, Green Arrow has superhero sidekicks and partners, such as Black Canary and Speedy, who are only just beginning to materialize in the Arrow story arc.  But the writers have created a new ordinary mortal team to share Oliver’s mission for the series: John Diggle (named after one of the writers of the comic series), Oliver’s African-American Iraq War veteran bodyguard (David Ramsey), and Felcity Smoak (a character from another DC hero mythology), an IT specialist who can basically do anything with something that has circuits (Emily Bett Rickards), both the comic relief and the truth-speaker.

Most importantly, these two characters are being used as the agents of Oliver’s ethical education.  In the comics (except for the after-the-fact origin stories), the Green Arrow arrives mostly as a fully-formed hero with a social conscience.  But in Arrow, the island gives Oliver superhero bad-assness, but he is not an ethically-mature person.  His two partners have issues with his overly vengeful and violent vigilantism (alliteration score!) in the first season, which leads to the experimentation with a less severe code of honor in the second season.  I think it’s a wonderful choice to make the hero a deeply flawed and evolving character as opposed to a boring paragon endpoint.  There’s a wonderful exchange in the second episode of the second season in which Oliver is assuming the CEO spot at Queen Consolidated.  I’m hoping this is a good sign of things to come.

            Oliver: I need a Girl Wednesday.

            Felicity: It’s ‘Friday’ and the answer is “No.”

            Oliver: These computers have been upgraded. Far more processing power than your typical secretary.

            Felicity: Did you know I went to MIT? Do you know what I majored in? Hint: Not the secretarial arts.

            Oliver: Felicity! We all need to have secret identities now. If I’m going to be ‘Oliver Queen, CEO,’ then I can’t very well travel down 18 floors every time you and I need to discuss how we spend our nights!

            Felicity: And I love spending the night with you [embarrassed at the innuendo, breathes]… 3… 2… 1… I worked very hard to get where I am and it wasn’t so I could fetch you coffee!

            Diggle: Well, it could be worse. My secret identity is his black driver.

One of the other important character development dynamics is how Oliver reconnects with his family after being presumed dead for five years.  His mother, Moira (Susanna Thompson), has remarried, but, it turns out, has also been involved in the main Big Bad plot to destroy the Glades in a synthetic earthquake and in the sabotage of the yacht that killed Oliver’s father and marooned him on the island.  While his initial ire is directed toward his stepfather, it turns out that his stepfather is much more of a stand-up guy than we are first led to believe.  There is also Oliver’s younger sister, Thea (Willa Holland), who is going through some rough growing pains, but interestingly ending up the most grounded of the Queen family.

LARGER DISQUIETS

Oliver Queen is not intimidated by the Beautiful People of the superhero class.

There are two components of the overall tone that make me reticent to give a full-hearted endorsement of the show.  The first is the super-serious tenor of the stories and dialogue.  The Green Arrow of the comic books is a snarky, rebellious, anarchic critic, who doesn’t mind pissing off the sanctimonious monologues of Superman and Batman.  DC’s products have been taking a second place to Marvel’s of late because of their über-serious and dark takes on Batman and Superman.  I like dark, no, I love dark, and I thought the DC movies really explored some of the complex issues of their heroes’ mythologies.  But The Avengers was downright fun, as have been the associated iterations of the different stories of the individual Avengers.  Yes, Marvel has long been dominated by the incomparable Stan Lee, who knows how to write superhero snark, and the movies are now being overseen by Joss Wheedon, one of the best writers of tragicomic dialogue ever.  But they could easily have opted for dark.  Tony Stark’s descent into alcoholism was a big theme in the comics, but the movies have opted to tip-toe around it.

I understand that the writers of Arrow don’t want to descend into the campiness of the 60’s Batman series.  But unlike Marvel’s generally witty lineup, Green Arrow is the only major DC hero with a robust and self-aware sense of humor.  The problem is that his humor has usually been oppositional.  He points out the flaws and hypocrisies of the A-Team: Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, and Wonder Woman.  The political dialogues of Green Arrow and Green Lantern in the 70’s comics were the crucible out of which Green Arrow became more than a Batman clone.  Making him the central character creates some problems.  He’s no longer the commentator on the outside looking in, but I don’t think that’s an insurmountable writing challenge.  Amell has a talent for humor.  My favorite scenes in the series so far have been the raised eyebrows, spontaneous smirks, the lame cover-ups, and the rare banter.  It’s a tough balance when you’re going for dark and deep, but ultimately Green Arrow is not really a dark, brooding hero. He’s the dude cracking jokes in the back of the class. I hope they find a way to lighten up, just a bit.

In the 70’s Green Lantern and Green Arrow traveled the country together debating the options of leftist politics. When they got home, Oliver’s sidekick Speedy had become addicted to drugs.

My second issue is the overly self-sacrificial asceticism of the first season plot.  This seems to be an ongoing flaw with much superhero literature overall and has done a deep disservice to what was once the core audience, nerdy teenage males.  So many superheroes forgo pursuing healthy social lives because of the danger they might put their loved ones in or because of the potential distraction from the heroic mission.  Simply, this is a tired and outdated trope.  True, most religions espouse sexual abstinence as a way to achieve higher spiritual and moral states (and sometimes states of super-human miraculous powers).  The monks who taught me in high school spoke of their voluntary sublimation of desire for the sake of a higher good.  The dedication and discipline is admirable, but is it really a prerequisite for doing good deeds in the modern era?  I don’t think even my monks would have said so.  Unfortunately, the finale of the first season sets up waves and waves of guilt and destruction emanating from that single and brief sex scene I mentioned earlier.  Are we in a horror movie or something?

In the last few decades, superheroes have been growing up and developing stable relationships.  Superman and Spiderman have gotten married, and the Green Arrow of the comics, in addition to taking advantage of the free love of the 60’s and 70’s, also settled down and had at least one kid.  Yes, the hero who must forswear love is incredibly tragic, but it’s also bullshit.  I don’t need or want Arrow to become a sex-centric show, but it would be so refreshing to have a hero who can maintain and hide his identity from the general public and still manage to develop healthy and honest relationships with those around him.  Fortunately, none of the female characters on the show are shrinking violets, so it’s not misogynistic as so many comic book expressions have been in the past.  Superhero closets have dramatic resonance, but it would be a tribute to the Green Arrow of the comics to see Oliver transcend this issue in the series and come out to those closest to him.

There has to be a happy medium between womanizing playboy and sexual renunciant. You need to take a cue from . . . well, you!

In short, this series has a lot of potential in the source material, the ensemble talent they’ve gathered, and some of the narrative arcs the writers have decided to pursue.  The second season of a show like this often turns out to be the make-or-break moment.  In order to truly shine, I think Arrow needs to move beyond the perceived limited demographics of the CW and the dark, brooding, ascetic tropes favored by the current management of DC Comics.  It needs to embrace what is fun, interesting, and politically relevant about the Green Arrow mythos.

Boycotting Buggery

Ender’s Game the film comes out in the US in November

I’ve often said on this blog that science fiction and fantasy – imaginative literature – when it’s at its best, makes use of the Verfremdungseffekt (Brecht’s term for deliberately stylizing drama to create a sense of distance between the audience and the action) to encourage its readers/viewers to reflect on the human condition, ethics, or society in a new way. Growing up, perhaps no science fiction work caused me to ruminate on “the meaning of life” as much as Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game. Its protagonist, the young Ender, is a brilliant, earnest child, violently and brutally bullied by his siblings and peers and cynically manipulated by adults (and a military) who wish to shape his fate and talents to their own desires and needs. The character has spoken and continues to speak to angsty teenage nerds everywhere.

But the central engine of Ender’s Game and its sequels runs on a profoundly ethical problem. At the story’s climax, Ender believes he is participating in a simulated war game, when, in fact, his commands are being passed down to a real military force in the field. Using his strategy, the fleet proceeds to annihilate the homeworld of an alien species (the “Buggers”), perceived by some in the human military as an existential threat. Ender becomes the Xenocide, “killer of the Other,” hero of the militarists but despised by himself. The rest of Ender’s saga develops from his desire to atone for the killing, however inadvertently, of an entire sentient species. Enders’s Game and its sequels highlight and explore the concept of empathy at its roots. How can you learn to feel ethically responsible toward even the most strange and alien of creatures, no matter how repulsive their customs and habits?

The story also raises interesting questions about military and political ethics (which might be why it’s often assigned in military training): How responsible was an average guard at Auschwitz for what went on there? Was the Hiroshima bomb justified, and even if it was, what kind of ethical responsibility still falls on those who dropped it? How do you balance the need to make a soldier a killing machine with their humanity? And can we act ethically in a society that is guided by military-industrial priorities?

From the Marvel Comics version of Ender's Game

Would you let your mother marry this bugger? Ahem . . . I mean, would you let your mother defend this queen? Ahem . . . no, well, this is embarrassing. Orson Scott Card says, “Just don’t do it!”  Wait, do you see the muscles on that dude?  Ahem  . . .

Given the theme of the stories and the impact they had on a blooming xenophile and quasi-pacifist such as my teenage self, it was with some distress that I learned in later years that Orson Scott Card is one of the most noxious, homophobic writers in America. He has felt strongly enough on the issue to produce numerous screeds, advocating, among other things, that homosexual behavior should lead to the revocation of citizenship, that homosexuality is the result of abuse, that same-sex marriage will lead to the downfall of America and civilization as we know it, and that right-thinking Americans should rebel against any government that seeks to legalize it. He has even become a board member for the National Organization for Marriage, one of the more powerful anti-gay hate groups currently active. To be honest, in the context of NOM none of his arguments are particularly original, although he’s a talented-enough writer to convey his utter apoplexy at the thought of gay people existing. But it does kind of hurt to hear this kind of stuff coming out of the mouth of an admired author.

There have been calls to boycott the upcoming film adaptation of Ender’s Game, starring Harrison Ford, Ben Kingsley, and some promising younger talent. Card has been the target of similar boycott campaigns in the past. Only recently, he was dropped as writer for a series of Superman comics when fans and the project’s lead artist protested. Card has recently asked people to not boycott the film because the Supreme Court’s ruling on DOMA renders his opposition to gay marriage “moot.”  He adds, obnoxiously or willfully ignorant of what the word tolerance means,  “Now it will be interesting to see whether the victorious proponents of gay marriage will show tolerance toward those who disagreed with them when the issue was still in dispute.”  Many in the blogosphere have resisted calls for boycotts, saying that he’s just the product of a Mormon upbringing (as if every Mormon out there campaigns for NOM) or that a boycott may backfire in unpredictable ways.

I’m on the fence about boycotting, in part because I’m not all that big on boycotts anyway, but also I’m on the fence about the growth of the boycott and retribution culture we seem to revel in these days. I think Card is an interesting case, because the degree of his involvement with anti-gay causes makes his case different from, say, Paula Deen’s racist remarks and fantasies. Likewise, since Ender’s Game is not particularly a story about sexuality (it’s striking in its asexuality, in fact), the work itself doesn’t seem to be wound up in the ideologies of its creator in the same way Wagner’s Parzival extols racial purity in the face of the Wandering Jew. I think it’s worth exploring why Card’s case may be different from both.

Kermit knows it’s not easy being green.

IF YOU CAN’T TWEET SOMETHING NICE, STFU!

In our instant social media existence, the slightest offhand tweet or Facebook post by a celebrity inevitably leads to canceled advertising contracts, insincere public apologies, and the endless analysis of 24-hour news channels that have long since given up spending the money to bring their audiences information about the actual world beyond the bubble. The recent flap about Paula Deen is a great example, I think, of our boycotting culture. Her frequent, albeit non-public, use of the N-word and planning a wedding reception that had an ante-bellum costuming theme (complete with racially-accurate servants) are indeed pretty disgusting. But she has lost many, if not most, of her contracts, as a result. I agree she should be ridiculed and taken to task for her casual racism (and that her brother should be taken to court for his alleged racial and sexual harassment), but that could have been a starting point about a conversation about what exactly is “casual racism.” Instead, the focus seems to be on destroying her career. Now, if it turned out she was a leading figure in the KKK, if she had stolen all her recipes from an unknown and uncredited African-American cooking genius, or even if she had a public Gibsonian drunken meltdown, some of these responses might be warranted.

Unfortunately, this sort of overkill vengefulness often results in a backlash that brings the episode to a disturbing denouement. At the end of the news cycle, instead of thinking to themselves, “Gee, Paula really shouldn’t have said that. I hope she can rise above her racist background,” the American CNN-viewing public will more likely respond, “Hey, back off! Paula has a right to be racist!” In the hands of the right-wing media, you then get the sense that using the N-word is a way to exercise your patriotic duty to speak freely or the would-be-funny-if-not-so-sinister claim that “creepy-ass cracker” is a reverse-racist equivalent of the N-word.

Let’s take another, contrasting example, Chick-Fil-A. Some of us had been aware of reports of discrimination against gay customers and employees going back years, but their stance became more public when they decided to co-sponsor a “marriage” conference in 2011. This led to calls by some LGBT organizations to boycott the chain. This was followed by an un-boycott, as evangelicals flocked to consume fast-food in the name of Christ. This case is different from Deen, in my opinion, because Chick-Fil-A decided to make their bigotry part of their public image, and have been pursuing that agenda consistently for a long time. If you patronized the restaurant, you knew that a portion of what you spent there would go to certain ultra-conservative causes (They claim that they no longer donate to anti-LGBT organizations, but the owners, the Cathy family, are still visible and vocal in those circles).

Many of Chick-Fil-A’s supporters felt that calls for a boycott amounted to a restriction of free speech. Obviously, such people haven’t thought about the Constitution much beyond what Bill O’Reilly tells them is in it, but they do raise an interesting question, even if it’s not the one they thought. As a consumer, to what degree do I feel the need to patronize only places of business owned by people I agree with politically? Will I buy a drink from a bartender I know voted for Bush? What if he talked about how much he likes Bush to his customers? What if he volunteered for the Bush campaign? What if he liked to talk about how stupid Democrats are? What if he were Bush’s chief policy advisor? What if he was even the one who invented hanging chads? Somewhere along that line, I would stop wanting to buy his beer, but I’m not sure if I could come up with a hard and fast rule for the exact point where bygones-be-bygones becomes get-off-of-my-lawn. If I boycotted local businesses whose owners belonged to the NRA, I’d have to start raising my own food.

I do boycott Chick-Fil-A (and had before 2011), but, to be honest, I never ate there anyway nor had any desire to. Essentially, I’m taking credit for doing something politically I would have done apolitically anyway. I also boycott Lowe’s, although I feel kind of bad about it. They had advertised on the TLC reality show All-American Muslim, which had as its task the depiction of the banal day-to-day lives of ordinary Muslims in America (Episode One: Khadija buys laundry detergent!). But the American Family Association threatened to boycott them for supporting a program that dared to suggest that Muslims were normal and not terrorists lurking in our backyard (How that’s a “family values” issue, I’m not sure, but if there’s one thing these folk hate more than gays, it’s Muslims. Fun trick: Tell them you’re a Gay Muslim Socialist and catch their facial expression with your cellphone – Priceless!). Lowe’s pulled their ads. So now, I’m boycotting them for having a really weak spine, which isn’t completely fair, since they’re only secondarily involved. But if you can’t stand up to something so pernicious, what good are you? It balances out, because the AFA boycotts Home Depot for sponsoring Gay Pride events. As long as everyone can get their fluorescent light bulbs replaced somewhere, it all works out, I guess.

However, I don’t boycott Coca-Cola, Wal-Mart, or Apple, even though they have some very questionable labor practices at home and abroad. Nor do I boycott Facebook, even as it colludes with (and actively designs algorithms for) the NSA and FBI to subject us to constant invasive surveillance. Apparently, it boils down to whether a boycott would constitute an inconvenience to me. I guess I’m not as ideologically committed as my conservative relatives think I am. But I think I’m probably not that different from the average consumer, in this regard. At least I thought about boycotting them. Does that count for something in the karmic wheel?

Wagner’s Parzival Act 3: A little soda water will get rid of that little stain of Judaism, don’t you worry!

WAGNER FEARED JEWISH COOTIES

The other contrast I wanted to make with Card and Ender’s Game is the case of Wagner – no, not that The Case of Wagner, my overly erudite readers, although Nietzsche’s observations about anti-Semitism and the relationship of the creator with the creation make a good starting point. One of the first things you learn about Wagner if and when you study him in Music History is that he was a rabid anti-Semite. Not only did he write about it, but there are several plainly anti-Semitic characters in more than one opera. In Das Rheingold Alberich the money-hungry dwarf renounces love to claim the eponymous gold, thereby starting the chain of events in the Ring that brings down the gods. (Ever notice that depictions of Tolkien’s dwarves have exaggerated hook noses right out of a 19th-century anti-Semitic caricature?). And then there’s Kundry in Parzival, a very literal depiction of the Wandering Jew legend, condemned to wander the Earth deathless until the Second Coming for mocking Christ on the Cross. The Wandering Jew motif shows up in less literal fashion in Der Fliegende Holländer. Hitler loved Wagner and these operas, and for this reason, many have boycotted Wagner over the years. Whether Wagner would have approved of the extremes Hitler embraced remains an unanswered question, but without a doubt Wagner and his work contributed, in more than small ways, to an environment in which German National Socialism could come to power.

But I love Wagner. I think his operas are on par with of some of the best imaginative fiction of more recent times. He presents the surrealism of mythology, framed in the incredibly stylized conventions of opera, and explores love, sacrifice, human destiny, and religion in thoughtful and moving ways. Admittedly, Wagner is an acquired taste, and one needs to spend many, many, many, many hours to develop that taste. But he knew the power of a booming score and flaming explosions more than a century before Michael Bay. Hollywood owes a lot to his production philosophy and aesthetics. Unfortunately, he skipped the class of storytelling called “show, don’t tell.” Wagner characters spend a lot of time describing their life histories in rhyming couplets in the middle of what ought to be incredibly gripping scenarios. “I’m here to murder you, foul temptress! But first, sit down and listen to me recount the story of my mother’s long and tragic tale, after I remind you of the underlying philosophical structure of the cosmos.”

This may sound counter-intuitive, but knowing of Wagner’s anti-Semitism deepens my enjoyment of his operas. Deconstructing an author’s psyche is part of the fun of great art and literature, isn’t it? You can watch Birth of a Nation and appreciate its visual storytelling, even if you find its themes disturbing and bizarre. But is that enjoyment a function of the cushion of time? The era of virulent German Anti-Semitism is (mostly) past. The Ku Klux Klan, while still extant, is largely viewed as a de-fanged fringe group. I do have to say, however, that recently re-watching the film Red Dawn (the original) made me feel icky. I didn’t quite grasp this in my youth, but it goes through all the NRA talking points (evil gun registries, commies might invade YOUR town tomorrow, etc.) over the course of the movie, and it’s been a great recruitment tool for the militia movement. I am glad, though, that I went to see Zero Dark Thirty, even if the thought of boycotting it crossed my mind. The ideas were worth engaging, even as a more antagonistic audience member.

Maybe he just needed to be bullied less as a kid.

CARD’S GAME

Ender’s Game, however, is yet another category. Although many have searched for homophobic themes in Card’s work (more prominent in some than in others), it’s not a story thematically linked to anti-gay bigotry in the same way that Parzival relies on notions of racial purity. The odd attitude of Card and his characters to sexuality and the body are certainly worth deconstructing, but they are hardly part of heavy-handed propaganda. I think in many ways, the product is separable from its creator. Perhaps it even deserves to be rescued from its creator.

This is true of Ender’s Game more than most. Ender is raised to hate the Other. The inhumanity (literally, in this case) and danger of the Buggers has been reinforced by Ender’s commanders, the politicians, and the media his entire life (comparisons to Heinlein’s Starship Troopers are apt up to this point). But then, catastrophically, devastatingly, Ender learns that all of that has been wrong. He comes to believe that the Other has intrinsic value, simply by being, and that the right of Others to simply be is worth struggling to preserve. Ender dedicates the rest of his life to that end.

I have to recognize that reading Ender’s story as a kid contributed, in some way great or small, to my ethical formation and that of many others, such that we can see Orson Scott Card’s virulent, over-the-top hate for what it is and reject it. I find it tragic that Card himself cannot see the bitter irony. Assuming it gets halfway decent reviews (I’ve been burnt before), I will not be boycotting the film, but I will see it affirming what the story can stand for rather than what its author has chosen to stand for.

P.S. I have to pat myself on the back for my choice of title, just in case no one else decides to do so. It’s a triple entendre!

In Praise of Music

In Westeros, everyone can hear you scream!

This is a slight deviation from the main themes of the blog, but I want to give a shout out to the composers for serial TV series.  I don’t mean the likes of Law and Order: You know the Bum-Bum of Law and Order, but do Benson and Stabler have their own themes?  I’m talking about Battlestar Galactica (Bear McCreary) and Game of Thrones (Ramin Djawadi) and similar real serials.  Wagner may be a little unpopular due to his virulent antisemitism, and Hector Berlioz may be a little obscure, but the idea of the Leitmotiv and idee fixe, or a musical theme that traces a character or concept through an artistic work is thankfully alive and well.  One of the joys I’ve had in both these series is the musical progression of the themes the composers of these series have set forth.  McCreary chose both characters and plot themes to shape his musical ethos.  It is not an accident that it is a melody, interpreted by Starbuck and the Final Five, that determine the fate of the fleet – The Music of the Cosmos, however it may be interpreted.

The melodies of Game of Thrones are oriented more toward the different Houses than  specific characters.  The Starks have a Norse palette, and the Lannisters make use of the “Rains of Castamere” tune.  The cue for the Red Wedding near the end of Season 3 of GoT makes use of that song – which explores the dangers of opposing House Lannister-  to signal the assassination of our beloved Starks.  But the series has also seen the evolution of Daenerys’ theme as the progress of destiny and the progressing threat of the Others of the North.  It is worth it to take a gander at the sound tracks of these series. It has added to my enjoyment of these series.

The job of TV composers is to stay in the background, but serial narratives have in some programs have opened a venue for talented musicians to explore the possibilities of this genre.  Kudos to you, McCreary an Djawadi!

Justice in a Land of Ice and Fire

Don’t expect justice here . . .

This is heavy on spoilers from the first book, which sets up these characters, but I will go lighter on spoilers from the later books.  Given the approaching climax of the third season of Game of Thrones on HBO, I decided to strike while the iron is hot . . . so to speak.

Critics of high fantasy literature often argue that reactionary conservatism is endemic to the genre.  If Tolkien’s opus is taken as the definitive model, it’s not hard to agree.  Rightful and just kings return to their thrones; manservants are loyal and steadfast, if somewhat simple; the leisurely rustic life triumphs over the industrial proletariat; goodness and nobility shine forth from the skin of tall, blond-haired, blue-eyed paragons from the north and west; hordes of dark, vicious, evil races swarm from the south and east; women are passive, beautiful objects that need rescuing (with the occasional active, adventurous female, e.g. Eowyn, being an exception that proves the rule); and the underlying Christian ethos transcends time and space.  High fantasy, after all, finds its roots in the Romanticism of the 19th-century, in many ways a reaction against the cold scientism of the Enlightenment and the social upheaval of the Industrial Revolution.  Despite the increasing number of women who have become consumers of the genre, one has only to peruse the covers in the fantasy section of Barnes & Noble to see the impossibly muscular manly-men and the well-endowed, scantily-clad women who love them.  Plus ça change . . .

Reviewers of George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series (the basis of HBO’s popular Game of Thrones) have often called him the “American Tolkien.”  This is a little hyperbolic, since from a literary perspective, Martin is closer to the pulpy, page-turner-ish Robert Jordan than to high English Tolkien (although Martin draws deeper characters and wittier dialogue than Jordan, in my opinion).  But in many ways, Martin is really an anti-Tolkien, inverting the romanticization of the medieval world typical of the genre.  The rightful king is a self-indulgent asshole, as are most of the pretenders; manservants are likely plotting to slit their masters’ throats; noblesse oblige is a transparent sham used to justify ridiculous entitlements; the dominant “races” are tyrannical and hierarchical, while the nomads and “savages” of the world seem to be the only ones to truly grasp the idea of freedom, albeit a freedom born of brutality; women are treated as inferior but have slightly more options available to them than real-world history afforded them; and all the religions seem equally hypocritical, brutal, and violent.

Martin’s epic is intensely character-driven, so the deeper themes and philosophies are often more subtle.  But one of the dominant themes is the (im)possibility of justice in a deeply flawed world.  Westeros is a land governed by a thriving feudal system based heavily on real-world Europe, but it’s a feudal system with chinks in its armor that allow alternative and empowering visions to bloom in the imaginations of the marginalized – women, dwarves, cripples, criminals, bastards, prostitutes, non-white peoples, and children.  The most compelling characters of the series emerge from an intense experience of feudal injustice.  Each of these characters has their own voice situated at the margins.  Martin allows these characters just enough room to try and do something about it – and here, indeed, is where the series earns the name “fantasy”.

CAN NOBLES BE NOBLE?

Many of the characters of the series still believe in the justness of their feudal system despite all evidence to the contrary. Eddard (Ned) Stark, his daughter Sansa, and Stannis, the brother of King Robert and one of the pretenders on Robert’s death, represent three iterations of this faith in the system.

A good question. But is he the politician we deserve or need?

Ned is the stereotypical fantasy hero who holds that loyalty to friends and family and the conscientious pursuit of honor and duty will create real virtue.  He is goody-two-shoes to a fault, but he is immediately admirable and sympathetic.  When administering the death penalty, he accords the accused the honor of being the executioner himself – the condemning judge must wield the blade – which is the act through which we are first introduced to the Starks and the ethos of the Northmen.   He has only once besmirched his honor, and that was in fathering the bastard Jon Snow, for which he punishes himself by raising Jon in his household as a constant reminder to himself and his wife Catelyn (and to Jon, as well) of his shame.  Considering how many bastards we eventually meet in the course of the story, Jon Snow is hardly anything unusual, but for Ned, his momentary dalliance was a profound betrayal of love and family.

We begin to suspect Martin’s deviousness when he takes this paragon of nobility and plops him down unceremoniously in the middle of the Machiavellian den of vipers that is King’s Landing, the capital.  As the hedonistic and world-weary King Robert’s newly-appointed Hand, he is left mostly to his own devices to sort out the murder of his predecessor and ferret out threats to the King.  The secret at the center of all the deceit is that all of Robert’s “children” are actually the children of Queen Cersei and her twin brother Jaime (a secret revealed early on when young Bran Stark catches them in the act, is pushed out a window by Jaime, and conveniently contracts amnesia until it is too late – just to remind you of the soap-opera conventions of the series).

So what?  Well, according to the rules of succession dictated by Westerosi feudalism, if son Joffrey is a bastard of incest, he cannot be the heir.  The throne must pass to Robert’s next oldest brother Stannis, a humorless and unpopular blowhard.  When Robert is (not so accidentally) gored fatally by a wild boar, Ned finds himself kingmaker, and his choice and its consequences drive the action for the next several books.  It turns out Ned’s true tragic flaw is to believe in nobility in an ignoble world.  He could have kept Cersei’s secret and offered to mentor and perhaps soften the sadistic Joffrey as regent.  Or he could have supported the claim of Renly, the younger Baratheon brother, who is popular, well-connected, reasonably virtuous, and stunning in eveningwear.  Or he could even arrest Cersei and her brood and take the throne himself with little complaint from the establishment.  But Ned is Ned, so he mercifully gives Cersei a chance to flee (as if!) and begins to clear the way for Stannis’ succession.  From the perspective of the rules of honor, family, and nobility he did precisely the just and right thing, but it was the worst thing he could have done.  Ned Stark loses his head, Joffrey climbs the throne with scheming Cersei at his back, and the realm descends into a bloody civil war in which ordinary people are made to suffer.

I imagine most would disagree with me, but I think the argument can be made that Ned is the true villain of the piece.  His refusal to make nuanced decisions based on a “lesser of two evils” rationale leads him to identify his choices as black or white.  Would there still be gore and suffering in Westeros?  Probably, but Ned chose narrow morality over pragmatic wisdom, and justice suffered for it.  Cue the orgy of hangings, disembowelings, flayings, castrations, beheadings, trials by combat, and nipple-ectomies (Nipples in a George R. R. Martin book have a life expectancy similar to hands in a George Lucas film).

C’mon, Sansa, show us your backbone! You know you wanna!

Neither Martin nor Westeros is kind to those who hold to notions of virtuous nobility.  If Ned Stark is the ultimate fantasy hero (Aragorn wrapped in Luke Skywalker with shades of Woodrow Wilson), his daughter is the ultimate fantasy consumer, starry-eyed and weak-kneed in the presence of jousting knights and romantic troubadours singing songs of valor and true love.  In many ways, her fate is worse than her father’s – to witness the plots and atrocities of the court first-hand, be powerless to stop them, and be forced to assert their justness publically.  She is a perpetual innocent victim, but her victimhood is a direct function of her willful naiveté.  After being subjected to humiliations from her betrothed Joffrey and cynical “life lessons” from her future mother-in-law Cersei, at the end of the third book (A Storm of Swords) we are led to believe that she will have a moment of respite:

“Her maid rolled herself more tightly in her blanket as the snow began to drift in the window.  Sansa eased open the door, and made her way down the winding stair.  When she opened the door to the garden, it was so lovely that she held her breath, unwilling to disturb such perfect beauty.  The snow drifted down and down, all in ghostly silence, and lay thick and unbroken on the ground.  All color had fled the world outside.  It was a place of whites and blacks and greys.  White towers and white snow and white statues, black shadows and black trees, the dark grey sky above.  A pure world, Sansa thought, I do not belong here.” (A Storm of Swords, chapter 80)

She builds a Winterfell in the snow, idealizing the castle home of her youth, a place of safety and certainty.  But the horrors of lust, jealousy, and deceit will quickly dash her vision in the book’s remaining pages, and still worse horrors await the reader in the epilogue. Sansa’s passivity makes her a very frustrating character and a stark contrast to the many courageous female characters in the epic.  We receive flashes of resistance, but she suppresses them herself long before anyone else attempts to.  She is the poster child for the false consciousness of the rich and powerful of the land, willfully blind to the injustices which surround them and which they may unwillingly perpetuate.

No one appreciates a guy who withstands a siege with the help of onions . . . or kills his brother with a foul weird blood-shadow from the uterus of someone with whom he should not be having sex.

Even though Stannis Baratheon is not a main point-of-view character, his shadow is long.  He represents the flipside of Ned Stark’s coin.  If Ned and Sansa cling to an idealized concept of nobility, Stannis represents the bald reality of what that entails.  He is, according to the rules, the true heir – Ned staked his life on it.  He possesses a noble’s sense of entitlement and a deep bitterness when others refuse to acknowledge his rights.  He should be king; he should be beloved; he should be acknowledged, but solely on the basis of his genealogy and dutiful service.  He is not vicious or evil; he is simply the product a system that (supposedly) prizes heritage and martial valor more than charisma, compassion, or insight. His sense that history and destiny must see his claim recognized is not helped by his red priestess, Melisandre, who tells him that he is an ancient hero reborn, prophesied to save the world from the cosmic threat of the Others from the Frozen North.  As the blind Maester Aegon observes, however, Stannis’ messianic fire sword gives off light, but does not give off heat.  It is his status and contrivance, not his character or passion, which puts him where he is.  He is not the one the world needs.

Like Ned and Sansa, his sense of justice and morality is without nuance, and while in the Starks this trait reinforces their “nobility,” in Stannis we see it more truly as something impersonal and inhumane.  His most loyal friend, Davos Seaworth, is a former smuggler who snuck in food and supplies to Stannis and his forces during a siege in the old rebellion against the Targaryens.  The reward for his bravery was a knighthood, but also the removal of his fingers – he was, after all, a smuggler and should be punished.  Stannis is pure justice, without mercy, forgiveness, or wisdom.  If peasants and savages die along his path to destiny, so be it.

It is striking that the cosmic backdrop of the story involves the dualistic clash of the necromantic Others from the far north and the ancient fire magic of the dragons, long thought extinct.  Yet the characters that reveal the most dualistic and rigid thinking seem the least-suited to succeed in the world of Westeros.  I suspect Martin is up to something sneaky in the remaining two books.

FIGHTING THE POWER

The most interesting characters, at least for me but I suspect many will agree, tend to be those that recognize the systemic injustice of politics and society in the world of Westeros, but then try to make it better somehow.  But how do you fight it?  In the characters of Daenerys Targaryen, Tyrion Lannister, and Arya Stark we are given three distinct answers – revolution, subversion, and rebellion.

If eating raw horse organs will save my people, I will do it gladly!

If Stannis thinks he’s the prophesied savior of the world but isn’t, Daenerys is clearly the one poised for this role, but yet she doesn’t quite know it yet.  Despite being the scion of a great house, overthrown by Robert’s rebellion, she has had none of the privileges of royalty.  More than any other character, the young queen follows a complex evolutionary arc that teaches her what must be sacrificed to truly rule and rule truly.  Unlike her self-entitled brother, Viserys, Dany begins her path to power at the very bottom, a pale and timid child sold to a Mongol-like Dothraki warlord as price for a horde that will help her house to regain the throne of Westeros.  At first little more than a sex slave, she learns to make her husband love her and respect her.  A rough and uncouth man, Drogo is nevertheless not cruel or abusive, and finds his increasingly confidant wife a pleasing asset.  It is not long before she has been able to assert a place of power among the nomads.

Beyond her own experience as chattel, one of her first lessons in the injustice of the world comes from her attempted intervention in the custom the Dothraki have of raping the women of conquered peoples.  She forbids the practice and takes several victims into her service.  One, the witch Mirri Maz Duur, betrays Dany, saving the life an ailing Drogo at the cost of placing Drogo in a permanent catatonic state and the life of Dany’s unborn child.  Dany protests:

“I spoke for you,” she said, anguished.  “I saved you.”

Saved me?”  The Lhazareen woman spat.  “Three riders had taken me, not as a man takes a woman but from behind, as a dog takes a bitch.  The fourth was in me when you rode past.  How then did you save me?  I saw my god’s house burn, where I had healed good men beyond counting.  My home they burned as well, and in the streets I saw a pile of heads.  I saw the head of a baker who made my bread.  I saw the head of a boy I had saved from deadeye fever, only three moons past.  I heard children crying as the riders drove them off with their whips.  Tell me again what you saved.” (A Game of Thrones, Chapter 68)

Another, Eroeh, who served Dany loyally, is taken and gang-raped in the dissolution of the tribe after Drogo’s death.  Her acts of kindness are undone by the resentment of the privileged who felt those privileges being challenged by uppity women.

It’s at this moment that Daenerys assumes (not so subtly) the mantle of the Wagnerian Brünnhilde, literally climbing the funeral pyre of her husband (fueled by the traitorous witch’s own body) and shaking the firmament with the birth of a new order.  In one of the first true appearances of magic in the series, Dany survives unharmed, albeit singed and hairless (something the TV series opted against) and the fossilized three dragon eggs burned with Drogo have hatched.  She is the Mother of Dragons, harbinger of the Revolution.

It could be expected that she would be motivated by revenge against the once loyal tribesmen who tore her people apart.  Or maybe she would be motivated to use her dragons to buy an army to sweep back into Westeros.  But what truly comes to motivate Dany is the cause of emancipation.  She takes upon herself the task of liberating all the slaves of the Eastern continent (Essos is a Greco-city-state Ancient Mediterranean-ish culture, just as Westeros is a Medieval European-ish culture).

The next step in the education of Queen Daenerys Targaryen is to learn the cost of Revolution.  Opportunists flock to see her dragons and attempt to take them away or control them through controlling her. And when she finally has an army of liberated military eunuchs behind her and is no longer dependent on the patronage of the greedy, the dragons start to become a powerful military weapon in their own right.  But as the dragons/the Revolution grow, they become harder to control and require more food to sustain them.  When it is finally revealed that one of the dragons has eaten a peasant’s child, she begins to show some cold feet.  Her conquest of the slave cities has not come without cost.  The class warfare backfires and the freed slaves become both victims and perpetrators of civil strife, as the remaining slaver cities unite against her.  There is sickness, interruption of trade, and scarcity of resources.  Is it even possible to be a benevolent conqueror?

Dany, too, could end up a victim of idealism like Ned Stark, but her own experience of slavery and poverty have given her an edge that the landed nobility lack.  She has learned to be pragmatic and adopted an attitude of service, making uncomfortable personal choices for the greater good of her “children.”  Will she pull it off?  And will she be able to bring her new vision to Westeros?  Destiny say it’s so, but when has Martin let destiny have its way without a fight?

Not generally a fan of corporal punishment, but gee, Joffrey really needs to be slapped from time to time.

Tyrion Lannister is the favorite of most of Martin’s fans, and not just because of Peter Dinklage’s amazing portrayal on TV.  Without a doubt, he is the smartest man in the room, both in book-smarts and in his ability to think on his feet and toss out clever barbs.  He is, however, a dwarf, despised by his father and assumed by almost everyone he meets to be as evil as he is ugly (Peter Dinklage is handsomer than the descriptions in the book), the “Imp.”  By all the rules, he is forever barred from assuming true power, but he also sees the tangled strings of intrigue more clearly than anyone else.  He is the Michel de Certeau of Westeros.  Leading a revolution of dwarves and outcasts is clearly out of the question, so Tyrion assumes the role of trickster, manipulating situations behind the scenes.  As he says to the bastard Jon Snow early in the first novel, “Never forget what you are.  The rest of the world will not.  Wear it like armor, and it can never be used to hurt you.”  (A Game of Thrones, 14) Despite his reputation, he usually tries to counter-balance the injustices he sees around him.  For example, when Tyrion holds the post of King’s Hand, he sends the captain of the guard, Janos Slynt, who gleefully followed King Joffrey’s infanticidal orders, off to the Night’s Watch, where he can do no more harm (he thinks).  The only problem with doing such things behind the scenes, though, is he must remain an unsung hero even as he accumulates powerful enemies.

Through much of the second book, Tyrion is the only thing standing between the sadistic and megalomaniac King Joffrey and the rest of the kingdom, attempting to mentor him in ways that Cersei (or Robert, or Jaime, or Ned) has not.  Joffrey, though, is beyond redemption, and Tyrion, as his Hand, comes to be associated with the worst of the King’s misdeeds.  So Tyrion’s good intentions tend to be thwarted, much like Dany’s.  But this doesn’t prevent him from lying and conniving towards justice.

Arya Stark, played by Maise Williams in the HBO series and one of the best of an already talented cast.

The third option, the most modest, yet the assured one, appears on the plate of Arya Stark, the tomboy who’d rather learn sword-fighting than embroidery.  It is her status as a child, and as a girl who looks like a boy, that gets her out of the dreadful scrapes she experiences in the first two books.  By the middle of Clash, we see that she has started down the career path of assassin.  Like Daenerys, Arya has an evolutionary arc, although in this case she has a series of mentors in place of Dany’s antagonists: Syrio Forel, who teaches her swordsmanship for the small and agile; Yoren of the Night’s Watch, who teaches her to hide as a boy and trust other outcasts; (the TV series gives her some time as Tywin Lannister’s page, a brilliant deviation from the books); Jaqen H’qaar, a shape-changing Faceless One, who kills three men for Arya in exchange for her saving the lives of him and two other prisoners, and who presents the possibility of joining the Faceless guild in Braavos; Beric Dondarrion, loyal knight turned undying Robin Hood, waging a guerilla war against any lordly army, Lannister or Stark, who causes suffering to the innocent populace; and finally the Hound, the anti-knight who rejects all notions of honor (yet nevertheless has a keen sense of justice).   Each of these mentors has no qualms about bringing the strike of death from the shadows to those who they feel are remorseless scum.  Yet each has been motivated by some sense of justice – in the form of the balancing act of vengeance.

A witness to her father’s beheading, Arya begins a bedtime litany of all those against whom she will bring revenge, a list that frequently grows and occasionally diminishes with time.  It is truly a sign of the upside-down world Martin has created that this heroine who challenges five gender stereotypes before she has breakfast has chosen to become the face of Death.  This approach to righting injustice might seem piecemeal, but so far Arya has racked up more successes than either Dany or Tyrion and has had fewer failures.

In modern parlance, we make reference to the “rule of law,” that notion that justice transcends all race, class, gender, and political status.  Even the President is subject to the law.  Such is not the reality for societies in a feudal or tribal situation (Afghanistan?).  There is no strong state to enforce such justice, so justice must be sought through personal relationships and networks of patronage.  In a tribal situation, vengeance is justice; in a strong or strengthening state, vengeance or the use of patronage networks is known as corruption.  But that doesn’t always work either, if you end up being betrayed by your relatives and allies.  It makes for great drama, as the longevity of the Mafia movie genre attests.  Westeros is a feudal realm that claims to support the rule of law, but is actually far more tribal than the Ned Starks of the world would admit.  If there is a “lesson” to be learned from Martin’s epic, it’s that the system of justice we hold dear obscures a myriad of privileges and entitlements that elevate some over others in the same moment that it denies such inequality exists.

ON OUR OWN

A family torn apart and never getting back together. They all think the others are dead. The reality is a little more complicated than that . . .

In contrast to the narratives of friendship and loyalty in The Lord of the Rings, The Wheel of Time, and most representatives of the fantasy genre, the characters of A Song of Ice and Fire live in a morally atomistic universe.  After the radical dispersal of the characters in the first two books, none of the main characters get to reunite with those they love most for very long, if at all.  And when family members and friends find one another, conflicting priorities pit them asunder, as Catelyn Stark’s desire to reunite her family causes her to free the captured Jaime, eliminating one of her son Robb’s few diplomatic bargaining chips and causing a deep wedge in their relationship.  Tyrion and Jaime, the only family member who ever had showed him kindness are soon split by revelations about how Jaime destroyed one of the only moments of true happiness in Tyrion’s life.  Arya and Bran Stark in the third book are moments away from being reunited with siblings, only to have cruel fate intervene.  And although surrounded by advisors, Dany is increasingly learning that even her most trusted advisors have ulterior motives and should be kept at arms’ length.

The help and aid of family, friends, servants, lords, and even passing strangers cannot be assumed, and, in fact, harm can be expected to come from those corners instead.  In Martin’s world, Sam would have plotted with Gollum to filch the Ring and toss Frodo (that elitist bourgeois stooge of the snooty elves!) alone into the Dead Marshes (Why wait till Mordor, smelly shit-hole?).  Then he would have thwacked Gollum (slave mentality!) in the head, taken the Ring, captured Gandalf (self-righteous self-appointed Christ-like messiah!), and hanged the wizard’s flayed corpse at the gates of Mordor as a warning to Sauron (small-minded plotter with no true understanding of the workings of Power!).  Go Sam, the true and only Master of the World!

So in Westeros, each of the characters must learn to be mistrusting and self-reliant.  Yet this is not some Ayn Randian medieval individualistic paradise.  It is a dystopia; the system is rotten to the core, and it is not conducive to life, liberty, or the pursuit of happiness.  Justice will not and cannot come from group action or state structures.  Even the noble, well-intentioned, guerilla Brotherhood without Banners under Beric can only dish out a brutal vengeance on rampaging soldiers, steeping the land still deeper in blood and violence.

And yet, I find Martin’s world optimistic and profoundly humanistic (even if the American liberal in me finds his lack of faith in true government reform disturbing).  The Needle-pricks of Arya, Tyrion’s small Sisyphean acts of corrosion, and Dany’s insistence to keep her people free at any personal cost place the primary responsibility for goodness and justice on the individual human being, even in the face of ugliness on a global scale.  Even the Hound, reviled as the brutal extension of Joffrey’s sadism, finds ways to make Sansa’s life better in ways that she will never understand or appreciate.  Arya’s refusal to kill the Hound as he lay mortally wounded could be taken as a cruelty, but at another level it is a silent acknowledgement that he no longer deserved to be on her death list – forgiveness in the midst of the gore and pus.

The cosmic backdrop of the battle between Ice and Fire has been on the back burner (so to speak) for most of the series.  But we know that “winter is coming.”  One of the things I’m anxious to see (if Martin ever finishes the last two books) is how the seemingly classic Good vs. Evil battle on the horizon will be squared with the atomistic, non-dualistic moral universe established by the characters on the ground.  I believe a clue can be found in one of the world-building conceits of the world: Seasons are not regular (no astronomical or geological explanation is even hinted at).  They follow each other in proper order, but the length of winters and summers can last years and perhaps decades.  It’s not totally random or relativistic, but nor is it totally fixed and predictable.  The opening credit sequence of the TV series gives us a gods-eye view of the world, giving the impression that there is some deeper cohesive meaning to the whole story.  But given Martin’s tendencies for the cruel twist, I have to wonder if the Others aren’t in fact the good guys, sent to resurrect the sins of the Realm and send them out to annihilate the whole mess.

Should we welcome the zombie-makers as our new rightful and just overlords?

Questioning Fictional Violence

The Sandy Hook tragedy seems to have resulted in one of the more sustained public conversations about gun violence in many years. A month has passed, and it’s still very much on everyone’s minds, televisions, and browsers. This time around, some more attention has been paid to the larger culture of violence and problems in mental health services, and not just to gun control. There’s also been an unusually good deal of self –reflection in the media. One area I’ve been following has been the conversation on video game violence.

The anti-gaming diatribe of the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre has rightly been met with a good deal of scorn, a transparent deflection to anything other than a serious discussion of gun control. That being said, gun control on its own can only be part of the solution. We need to look at other cultural factors. One can point to Switzerland, which has incredibly permissive gun laws but low incidence of gun violence. One could also point to Japan, which does have very strict gun laws but consumes massive amounts of graphic sex and violence through the media. When you control for only one variable in this kind of societal comparison, you get really strange and contradictory results.

I am a consumer of violent video games, but I’m not really sure I could throw an effective punch (having never felt the need to try), much less handle a firearm beyond a Super Soaker. I get squeamish at the sight of blood, so I’m not likely to stab anyone, either, or hit them with a hammer. However, in high school, I did write a series of haikus that had my classmates getting dismembered in amusing scenarios, in an Edward Gorey sort of way. These days, such things would probably have gotten me sent to a psychiatrist rather than garner literary praise. I’m glad I wasn’t pathologized in such a way, nor were the proto-engineers in my class who designed and built bombs to blow up squirrels in the back yard (and who grew up to be well-adjusted, model citizens).

But while I’m certain violent video games haven’t made me, at least, more prone to violence, I’ve nevertheless been thinking a great deal about what things in these games make me uncomfortable and why. Too many people ask the question, “Do violent games and movies cause violence?” The obvious answer is no, at least not directly, but they’re not asking the right question. Fictional violence, like real violence, always has a context by which we judge it. What distinguishes legitimate violence from illegitimate violence is a fuzzy and constantly shifting line. The number of children in Yemen and Afghanistan killed by U.S. drone attacks in the name of fighting terrorism hardly elicits an American tear, after all, even though it probably should.

But let’s stay in the fictional world for now. I’m not expecting to provide any profound answers here, but I’d like to suggest a couple questions that ought to be included in our national discussion.

Dishonored: How to separate the guilty from the innocent?

AREN’T YOU A LITTLE SHORT FOR A STORM TROOPER?

How do the faces or the facelessness of the victims of violence in games affect the narrative?

The bad guys in our fantasy and sci-fi epics are usually masked in both sameness and otherness – other than us, but all the same to one another. They’re hordes of aliens, orcs, dark-skinned savages (I’m looking at you, Tolkien), clones, robots, or space Nazis. They look different from us and therefore do not count as human. The conventional wisdom is that by dehumanizing the enemy the audience is spared having to delve into morally ambiguous territory. And even enemies that do have a face are bereft of human relationships. Does General Tarkin have any children? What’s his favorite color? How much poker money does he owe Vader? Will anyone mourn him after his horrific death being burnt to a cinder on the Death Star?

Not all games and movies take this route, however. A recent game by Arkane Studios, Dishonored, could be classified as one of the most hyper-violent games this past year, but is simultaneously one of the most thoughtful games I’ve seen when it comes to violence. You play as an assassin who is framed for the murder of an empress and must hunt down the real killers and rescue the princess, all set in a grisly plague-ridden Lovecraftian steampunk dystopia. You can beat the game by slicing off the heads and limbs of your enemies, but you can also beat the game without shedding a drop of blood and sneaking stealthily by your enemies.

While lurking in the shadows, you can overhear the burly guards complaining to one another about their work hours and making plans about what to do when their shift is over. There are also innocent people strewn across the levels you must traverse. While getting seen sometimes puts you in a bad spot, most encounters require you to choose life or death on a case-by-case basis. A maid might see you and cower in fear. Do you spare her and risk her alerting guards? You also have the option to knock her out and hide her in the bedroom. In this game, it is the player who wears a mask, a nameless terror to the denizens of the world. If you choose a more violent path, the plague gets worse and the more zombies get thrown at you by the end. The peaceful path is actually more challenging tactically and more satisfying. As it turns out, I suck at games, so I tried to be peaceful, but the guards always saw me and attacked. Despite my intentions, the game labeled me a pretty reprehensible bloke by the end.

I’m not sure which approach is “better.” Faceless enemies allow you to forget that you’re committing violence or stylize the violence so that it’s aesthetically divorced from the consequences. Enemies with faces force you to confront that you’re committing violence, but the visceral closeness can cut both ways. The exaggerated gore could be taken as a reward, a chance to giggle, as in a Peter Jackson battle scene. Or it could engender a twinge of digital guilt or at least disappointment that you didn’t play it right.

Left Behind: Yes, this really is a game. No, I don’t think they’ve sold that many copies . . . at least I hope not.

YOU’RE NOT IN KANSAS ANYMORE

Is violence depicted in the here and now different from violence long ago and far away?

I’ve always shied away from games set in the contemporary world or that portray current conflicts. World War II is about as close as I want to get, either that or 50 years into the future. I wonder why this might be. In the case of games depicting the “War on Terror,” they just smack of jingoistic propaganda or military recruitment. So I guess you could say I find them politically distasteful, but I also worry about the possibility of dehumanizing real groups of people. Dehumanizing Nazis is one thing – that conflict is over and we tend to get along pretty well with the Germans of today. I think for me that “fantasy buffer” is important for my enjoyment of a game. I don’t want to be reminded of real violence happening in my world.

I’ve also had trouble getting into the Grand Theft Auto Series, although I hear they are some of the best roleplaying games made in terms of complexity and writing. But then I’m not attracted to gangster films very much either. I think I find the type of masculinity depicted to be kind of vile. But that’s more about my own taste, perhaps, than the games’ violent content.

I wonder, though, how people construct their “fantasy buffer.” I was already in my 20’s before I really played a video game in any seriousness, although I was a total D&D nerd (several video game genres owe their very existence to Gary Gygax’s idea that an exciting narrative can be determined both by choice and the randomized roll of the dice). So the separation of fantasy and reality has never been a serious issue for me. I may overindulgence my escapist fantasy life, at times, but I never confuse the two.

I wonder if children and younger teens experience games the same way. Obviously, mass shooters have other psychological problems going on. But do “normal” kids growing up on video games end up perceiving real world violence differently? The fact that military technology seems to be more and more game-like does make me worry that the fantasy/reality divide is shifting for many. One of my high school gym teachers used to tell us about how he strangled an enemy in Vietnam with his bare hands (he also egged on several fist fights between classmates – I was not a fan. Violence in video games? Let’s talk about dodge ball as a mechanism to socialize violence in children!) But I wonder if having to physically confront your enemy and contend with his body, rather than pushing a button to blow up a blip on a radar screen, alters your perception of violence, and in what way? I suspect that something is lost, and something is gained, but I’m not sure what. And this clearly isn’t an issue limited to video games.

Mass Effect: Violence for the future of the galaxy: Truth, Justice, and the Organic Way

THE ANTI-ANTI-HERO

What traits make a hero a hero?

Most violent video games are simply the latest iteration of adolescent male fantasy from Homer to comic books. We want to be heroes. As kids, we use superheroes as a way to imagine being in the world. What do we want to be like? As adults, we may continue to be fascinated by superheroes as symbols of the paths we might have taken or as ways to honor the simpler time of our youth. We also seem to be in the age of the antihero, someone who tries to do right but is hampered by human flaws and frailties. The superhero phenomenon has helped many kids deal with feelings of marginalization. Superheroes are different from normal mortals but they save the day for everyone – a fantasy, perhaps, but one that fosters positive self-image. But on the darker side, superheroes tend to be vigilantes, technically, operating beyond the limits imposed on law enforcement. Alan Moore’s brilliant Watchmen tackles the thorny of issue of vigilantism among our superheroes.

Many video games, particularly in the roleplaying genre, engage the player in shaping heroic traits. BioWare’s games like Mass Effect and Knights of the Old Republic or Lionhead’s Fable work a “morality meter” into the mechanics of gameplay. Selfless actions tend to bump you toward the light side, while cruel actions bump you toward the dark side, each unlocking new gameplay options if you’re consistent. But even games without such a meter often present the player with complex moral dilemmas. Do I save the damsel being carried off by the dragon, or do I save the villagers in the village set aflame by said dragon? Even if you indulge the darker choices for the sake of playing a role, you’ve still engaged your ethical thought process, to the degree acting on pixels can be considered “ethical.” Some of these games have had writing on par with some of the best speculative fiction and can be aesthetically and philosophically satisfying.

Another genre, the pure “shooter,” strikes me as more problematic, sometimes, at least. Often there is no context given for the virtual carnage you inflict. It’s all about the adrenaline rush. That, in itself, might not be a bad thing, although I usually don’t find such games to be engaging enough – I want my narrative! In shooters, your targets are usually hordes of “others” – aliens, demons, Nazi cyborgs, etc., although I have heard of a Left Behind shooter where you convert people to Christianity or kill the recalcitrant unbelievers amidst the social chaos of the apocalypse – a troubling worldview to say the least.

I think games that put you in the role of hero have the potential to get the player to reflect on virtue, however simplistically, in the same way that the genres of epic and tragedy have since humanity first starting spinning fictions. But not all games succeed in placing violence in a meaningful context. The difference may ultimately be an aesthetic one, rather than a legalistic one.

NATURAL BORN KILLERS?

If we’re honest with ourselves, we’d have to admit that pretend violence is close to the core of what makes a game a game. Sports, cops and robbers, even chess engage our predatory instincts and thirst for competition, however stylized or abstract. In earlier eras, it was how societies remained prepared for war or passed on hunting and survival skills. It is even a behavior that can be understood across species. I play with my cat through pretend violence, and we are both aware of the difference between the real and the not real. That’s truly amazing when you think about it. No matter how rough and tumble we have gotten, he has never broken my skin with teeth or claws (although not all cats have such self-control). Games are not just about violence, they are also about engaging our social skills – even games we play by ourselves require us to think strategically and imagine how our real or virtual opponents will react.

That being said, some forms of pretend violence seem to cater to our baser instincts – vengeance, bloodlust, Schadenfreude. I think most modern societies would agree that the Roman coliseum “sports” crossed an ethical line, no matter how entertaining they were found by the audience. Just because fake violence seems to be instinctual doesn’t mean we always need to give it free reign.

Human beings are violent, and probably always will be, but we survive because we establish mental lines – between fantasy violence and real violence and between acceptable real violence and unacceptable real violence. Such lines shift, of course, and may differ from person to person. But we have a long way to go before truly understanding how such lines are built, reinforced, or undermined in a developing mind.

Some posts on this topic by friends of mine:

Faded Epiphanies

The Yogi Gamer