Monthly Archives: January 2017

Xenophobia, Science Fiction, and, eventually, Hope

I didn’t learn the term ‘xenophobia’ from the news, the radio, or a textbook. Didn’t come up in class or any place you’d expect. Rather, I learnt the word ‘xenophobia’ from the old Star Wars Expanded Universe books.

Was in the context of various political factions being distinctly anti-alien. Now, the xenophobia usually stemmed from the Empire and their staunch humans-first attitude and view of anyone who wasn’t as being intrinsically lesser, but some players in the New Republic also held xenophobic beliefs which made working together harder. Key thing was, these people were either villains or antagonists and their belief that someone who looked and thought differently was worth less than a person was wrong. The heroes, Luke, Leia, and even Han, weren’t about that; it was Emperor Palpatine and his ilk who pushed a xenophobic agenda. For a kid in his early teens recently immigrated to the US, it was a pretty clear distinction: good guys aren’t afraid of or mean to people because they’re different.

Now we all know that aliens and hyperdrives and Jedi are fictitious. But, xenophobia, as I would find out later, is a real term used by real people to describe real issues. The idea behind it, though — treating different people differently and meanly — was something I knew was unquestionably wrong because, well, Star Wars books. That and I was, y’know, a half-Singaporen cultural immigrant to South Carolina. But you get the idea.

I’m loathe to call Star Wars and science fiction in general ‘morality plays.’ Heck, I’m loathe to call any good fiction a ‘morality play’ because good fiction doesn’t preach at you. What science fiction does particularly well is, well, it says something without saying something. Diego Luna, in an interview with Vanity Fair,  said that the wonderful thing about setting Star Wars in a galaxy far, far away was “…whenever you get too personal, you can say, “No, I’m not talking about you. This is a galaxy far, far away.” But with this tool, you can actually make the most effective comments on the reality in which you’re living.”* Learning that species isn’t a demarcation for the capacity to do good is good practice for knowing that skin color and country of origin don’t have any bearing on whether someone is ‘good.’

And that’s the thing about stories: they’re practice. See, folks smarter than me have been trying to figure out why humanity does this whole storytelling thing. One theory is that stories are practice for interactions, a sort of simulation. When we read, we experience it ourselves. It’s science, since there are studies that “…suggest when we experience fiction are neurons are firing much as they would if we were actually faced with Sophie’s choice or if we were taking a relaxing shower and a killer suddenly tore down the curtain” (pg 63 of The Storytelling Animal by Jonathan Gottschall, if you’re wondering). Stories are practice. They’re parables, where you can learn something by living something in a different way. As Gottschall says, “if you want a message to burrow into a human mind, work it into a story” (118).

Back to science fiction. Reading stories about the real world can be tough, because seeing the crap we know exists in real life existing again isn’t always the funnest thing. Science fiction (and fantasy, etc) are reality adjacent, and so have more leeway. Ursula K. LeGuin can explore classism and sexual identity without pointing a finger at anyone for being a bigot. It becomes a safe space to discuss complex topics and live experiences you wouldn’t ordinarily. Stories can change you, can impact you because, well, the nature of fiction is that it strives to put you in that place. A good book has you working with the writer to empathize and live the narrative first hand. You can’t read a good book and come out entirely unchanged.

And the fantasy of science fiction means that there is a quick gratification to that hope. You don’t have to wait years and years on the edge to know that good will triumph over evil, that diversity beats xenophobia; you just gotta reach the end of the book.

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AMERICA

If you follow this blog you’ve probably realized that my mostest favoritest trope is the rag-tag multicultural team. It’s why I’ll always hold Disney’s Atlantis in high esteem, it’s why I have such a huge soft spot for the Magnificent Seven remake and Rogue One. Pacific Rim, Halo: Reach, X-COM, you give me a multicultural/national team, you make me happy

Really happy.

So you can understand my hesitance when the follow-up to Al Ewing’s very enjoyable New Avengers comics was U.S.Avengers. Here’s what could well be a rah-rah jingoistic comic, while New Avengers (volume 4, if you’re wondering) was this idiosyncratic book with giant mecha, a squirrel convincing a rat army to stop fighting for the bad guys, and mad science.

The first issue of U.S.Avengers is framed around the members of the team talking to the ‘camera’ about why they’re part of the team and, as they are a part of the remade AIM (American Ideas Mechanics) which is overseen by the US Government, about the whole being American thing. For Roberto da Costa, the leader of the team, this means talking about wanting to be American. Lemme make this clear, the first panel of the first issue of a comic book called U.S.Avengers is Roberto da Costa, someone born in Brazil, talking about his wanting to be an American. It culminates in him firmly declaring that he’s an American citizen, something that can’t be taken away.

So right off the bat we have, in a comic book called U.S.Avengers, the definition of American identity being one of an immigrant (who’s also not white, by the way).

But who else is on this team? We’ve got Toni Ho, genius Chinese-American who built her own version of the Iron Patriot which she pilots. Her girlfriend, Aikku, is also part of the team. A Finnish-Norwegian (say it with me:) immigrant, she finds the US different and slightly frightening, but takes comfort in Toni and the others and the space to find herself. And has her own super high-tech suit. We’re also introduced to Squirrel Girl, who stresses her Canadian/American dual citizenship; General Robert Maverick, the representative of the US Government who’s also Red Hulk; and Sam Guthrie, the guy from Kentucky whose interpretation of the American Dream is that of his blue-collar father, one where “there is no ‘them’ to help or hurt.” The first issue ends with an appearance by Captain America (which makes sense), only this is Captain America from an alternate future where she’s Danielle Cage, a bulletproof black woman.

This has been is a stupid amount of summarizing, but I hope you’re following my train of thought here. The image of the American put forth by U.S.Avengers isn’t one of a straight white dude; in the book Americans can be – and are – immigrants, people of color, women, and queer. This isn’t something the book hints at, it’s a blatant thesis statement put forth in the first issue.

I’m sure you’ve realized by now that this is important, but let me explain why. For much of American history, the image of an ‘American’ has been a straight white guy. Even today, especially today, the prevalent narrative of an American is a straight white guy whose family has been in the states for generations. It’s that whole idea of a ‘true’ or ‘real’ American. U.S.Avengers offers a counternarrative; one that’s, well, reflective of the actual US. We can talk all we want about shifting demographics and the changing face of a nation, but until the narrative shifts we’re just blowing air. U.S.Avengers reflects that America, as Marvel has been  doing as of late: Ms. Marvel is a naturalized Pakistani immigrant; Hulk is Korean-American, one Captain America is black.

So again, this is why diversity is important. If you’re doing a story about the modern US then the characters ought to reflect the people who make up the country: a nation of immigrants not just from Europe. We need these stories, we need to see people who aren’t straight white guys portrayed as American in fiction if we’re ever going to shift the default image of what an American is.

Elsewise we find ourselves in some ersatz 1950s America, and you don’t really wanna go back to that, do you?

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Gaming Morality

So here’s the basic concept of Dishonored 2: the empress has been deposed. You play as either said deposed empress (Emily) or her royal protector (Corvo) and carve a path of revenge against the usurper and her cabal of those who dishonored you (hence the title). Along the way you meet the Outsider who gives you a bunch of magical powers, ranging from teleporting and stopping time to linking enemies together (so if you kill one you kill ’em all!) to straight up stopping time.

Now, there are many ways to play Dishonored 2, something that’s hyped up both in the promotional materials and the game itself. You can sneak through each mission, unseen by anyone, or run in obvious as a strobe light. You can assassinate each target or find another way to eliminate them. You can kill every enemy you come across or choke them into unconsciousness.

Like I said: options! So many ways to play the game!

Which is where the game’s narrative gets in the way. Dishonored 2 has this thing called Chaos which is determined by how you dispatch targets and how many people you kill. Chaos determines your ending, and the way to get the good (or at least better) ending is through low Chaos. Essentially, the narrative encourages you to eschew violence (and some of those nifty powers). It makes sense, if you want the ending where Emily is a fair and just empress, wanton slaughter isn’t becoming. It’s this odd sort of ludonarrative dissonance where the game gives you these wonderful gameplay options the narrative then discourages you from using. Now, it does give replayability a boost which, given that I just finished my fourth playthrough(no powers, no stealth, high bodycount), does work.

BioShock is held up as a treatise exploring the relationship between player and game (rightfully so). The ending of the game you receive, however, is based on what you do about the Little Sisters. These creepy looking girls can be either saved or absorbed for ADAM, a resource you can use to improve your abilities. Now, saving the Little Sisters gets you some ADAM too, just at a different rate from absorption. When I played BioShock, I saved the first Little Sister, then, wanting to know what would happen and how much ADAM I’d receive, absorbed the next, then chose to save the rest. Upon finishing the game, my ending was noticeably downbeat – which confused me: I’d saved all those Little Sisters! Some research (googling) turned up that to get that good ending you had to save all of them, and absorbing even just one earned you a pretty harsh one (absorbing all garners you one more sorrowful). I was kinda pissed, I’d only absorbed one! But then, I had still chosen to absorb one, so I suppose that does still make me a bit of a villain. So it makes sense.

Still harsh, though.

At the least, Dishonored 2 and BioShock don’t  punish you gameplay-wise for your moral choices. Knights of The Old Republic allows you to make light side and dark side choices throughout the game because it’s Star Wars so Jedi and all that. In the late game there are armor and such that you can equip if you lean far enough in either direction. If you’ve been making decisions in both directions, though, tough. In the second KOTOR also has a whole section you can only access as a light or dark sider. Playing a more nuanced game gets you nothing. Which I suppose works in the Star Wars context, but, playing as an amnesiac former Sith Lord (oh, spoiler) and a Jedi exiled from the Order, I figure a level of permissiveness ought to color the KOTOR games.

Mass Effect 2 (also done by Bioware, who did the first KOTOR) had a similar issue, where not leaning too strongly in a Paragon (saves the day nicely) or Renegade (saves the day meanly) fashion prevents you from taking certain dialogue options and getting certain outcomes later on. It discourages you from mixing up how you respond (also, taking too many Paragon actions makes your badass scars disappear, boo). Mass Effect 3 rectifies it somewhat by letting the player accumulate Reputation from taking Paragon and/or Renegade options rather than a more lukewarm approach. So instead the game rewards you for taking a strong stance either way.

Perhaps the problem with video game morality is its binary nature. You, for the most part, are either good or bad and the narrative typically plays out accordingly – sometimes rendering judgment. I find that open ended narratives work better as in Mass Effect, where the decisions of your actions aren’t always so black and white: choosing to destroy the data earned by illegal vivisection means you won’t be able to save a character later down the line. Morality in video games – and ‘good’ and ‘bad’ endings – is an interesting and still developing facet of gaming that’s arguably limited by tech and designers’ patience. I’m undoubtedly curious to see how video games handle this going forward – especially Bioware’s upcoming Mass Effect: Andromeda. The virtuality of gaming makes for a fun space to try things and see what happens, consequences are great, limiting gameplay less so.

Or maybe Dishonored 2 could use just a few more non-lethal power options.

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Who Is The Everyman

I talk a lot about the concept of the everyman on this blog, though mostly about how they don’t have to be white guys. And there’s a reason it’s such an important thing. Spider-Man shows you don’t have to be rich and smart like Iron Man or an alien like Superman to be a superhero, you can just be a nebbish kid from Queens. It’s the whole point of the everyman: anyone can be a hero. Especially you, because, after all, the everyman is meant to be you.

Star Wars, with Luke and Rey, takes full advantage of the everyman. The totally mundane farmboy and scavenger turn out to really be special heroes who help save the galaxy. The characters’ motivations are built to be universal, certainly more so than the other characters around them. Han’s a smuggler who wants to get a bounty off his head and Leia wants to save her planet and the galaxy – Luke just wants to get off of Tatooine. Finn wants to escape from the First Order he used to be a part of, Poe is on an important mission for the Resistance – Rey just wants to belong. They’re universal wants, ones more translatable to ordinary life than paying off a crime lord. Again, Luke and Rey could be anyone, including you. And anyone, including you, could be the chosen one.

This is why it’s so darn important for there to be diversity in the everyman. Rey is important because she shows that you don’t have to be a dude to be a chosen one, to be special. Same with Ms. Marvel, where the superhero of New Jersey is Kamala Khan, saying that, hey, a Muslim girl can be an all-American superhero.

And that’s what makes the cast make up of Rogue One so important. Unlike Luke and Rey, these folks aren’t particularly special. No one’s a Jedi or super skilled smuggler. Jyn, Cassian, Chîrrut, and the others are, in the vein of Peter Parker and Kamala Khan, fairly ordinary people who suddenly find themselves in the right place at the right time and step up. They’re meant to be normal people, like you and me. So they look like normal people, like you or me.

There’s the rub. What do normal people look like? What do we look like? For me, that’s half-Asian/half-White, and based on the majority of (western) media out there, one of those halves is what heroes look like. The other half is usually a villain or, if not a token, then usually a stoic wise, old master. Not a swashbuckling hero or a badass mercenary. That’s the other half.

(In case you haven’t realized, it’s the white half that’s portrayed heroically and the Asian less so).

The diversity in Rogue One, however, flips that on its head – and in frickin’ Star Wars, one of my favorite stories! The heroes of the film come from all sorts of (real world) backgrounds, with a white woman as the lead and a Latino guy as deuteragonist. The others on the core team are a couple Chinese guys, a Pakistani-British guy, and Alan Tudyk as a droid. None of these characters are meant to be particularly special, not even the sense of being super well-trained or anything.

They’re normal people.

Who step up to be heroes.

And some of them happen to look like me.

Of course you don’t have to look like someone to emphasize with them. It’s why I see myself in the crew of Serenity in Firefly or wanna be Rey because she’s the best. It’s why I’m sure you can still wanna be Cassian Andor even though he’s Latino and you might not be. But who we see as heroes affect our perception of reality. If the only time we see Asian characters are as wise, old master, then that’s all we see them as. If the everyman is universal, then everyone should get to see themselves as the everyman.

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